House of Lords
Thursday, 22 February 2007.
The House met at eleven o’clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.
Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.
Care Homes: Abuse
My Lords, there are no comprehensive data on how many people are abused in care homes, but all cases of abuse are to be deplored. No Secrets, the statutory guidance issued in 2000, embraces multi-agency policies and procedures to protect vulnerable adults from abuse.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, but abuse has been reported, as he well knows. That abuse includes people being raped and people being tied to a wheelchair or a bed for up to 16 hours at a time, as well as routines being established for the convenience of staff rather than patients. Will my noble friend confirm that the Healthcare Commission reported as long ago as last June on some of these shocking cases and issued another report recently on yet another hospital where there has been further abuse? Can he tell us just how many more commissions, reports, inquiries, investigations and policy reviews are necessary before these patients can be treated in a civilised manner?
My Lords, I said that there were no comprehensive data, but a number of reports by respected organisations, including Action on Elder Abuse, have detailed the kind of serious issues and incidents to which my noble friend referred and the recent shocking cases in Cornwall and in Sutton and Merton. No Secrets, the statutory guidance to local authorities, makes it absolutely clear that adult protection committees need to be established and multi-agency working needs to be adopted. The Commission for Social Care Inspection has very clearly been charged to investigate all potential cases and it takes decisive action against homes that are found to abuse people. Clearly, we must be ever vigilant in this area.
My Lords, I am not aware of any hard evidence to that effect. Clearly, it is much better if organisations do not have to rely on temporary agency staff, because of continuity of care. This is certainly something that the Commission for Social Care Inspection will keep an eye on, but at the end of the day we depend—and it is right to depend—on the people who run care homes to ensure that whatever staff they have are properly trained and given the right advice and support in dealing with vulnerable people.
My Lords, given that 91 per cent of care home places for older people are in the private or voluntary sector and that the Government know that it is important for the Human Rights Act to be widely interpreted, what are the Government going to do about the loophole after the Cheshire judgment in 2001 for privately run care homes? What will they do about the large number of vulnerable older people who lack the protection of the Human Rights Act in that regard?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to refer to the large number of people in private care homes. Clearly, if there are gaps in the legislation, as she implies, that needs to be looked at. More generally, we very much rely on the Commission for Social Care Inspection inspecting standards. I remind noble Lords that, as a result of the action of the commission, in the past 12 months 69 homes were compulsorily closed. There is a wide variety of problems behind that but it shows that the enforcement agency has teeth.
My Lords, that is a difficult question to answer. I suggest that there are a number of causes, which relate to poor training, a poor ethos of leadership and problems with the vulnerability of certain patients, but at the end of the day I put it down to poor leadership. If you do not have a proper ethos of caring in care homes, and you do not ensure that all staff know it, you will end up with problems.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that this certainly shocking but also very sad state of affairs reflects the lower value that we have all, perhaps subconsciously, placed on older people at the end of life? We seemingly place little value on the considerable contribution that they have made to family, the community and the well-being of the country. What plans do the Government have to address this aspect of the problem?
My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a profound question, which covers attitudes in society towards older people. This House of all places knows the value of older people. I believe that our average age is 68. Noble Lords have evidence of the valuable role that people who might be regarded as older play in society. The passing of the age discrimination legislation is one important aspect of identifying the value of older people to the public and employers. We need to build on that. We have policies and programmes to encourage public authorities to recognise the value of older people, but as the demographics mean that more and more people will be regarded as elderly in the future, the more we can identify their contribution to society, the better and more positive attitudes will be.
My Lords, does not the Minister agree that any abuse of people in care homes is quite unacceptable and very often horrific? Some of this occurs because the staff who do the direct caring are poorly, if at all, qualified to do the job that they need to do. Will the noble Lord assure me that the Government will take very seriously the efforts that are being made to produce qualifications and training for those low-level care staff so that they are recognised, and that the Government will take this up as a priority?
My Lords, the simple answer to that is yes. Any act of abuse must be deplored, and we do so. I thoroughly agree with the noble Baroness about that. Thousands of people work in care homes. The great majority of them do a very good job indeed and we should acknowledge that. However, they need support, training and leadership. Clearly much more needs to be done, and the Government will address this in partnership with the regulatory bodies concerned.
Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000
My Lords, Natural England is due to report on ways of improving access to the English coast by the end of February, including the use of Section 3 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. Once Natural England has provided its advice, the Government intend publicly to consult on options for improving coastal access and the costs and benefits of these.
My Lords, I welcome that factual Answer. I also welcome the decision of the board of Natural England, which met yesterday afternoon, to put to the Government what I consider to be very sensible proposals, and I look forward to their response.
This was a Labour Party manifesto commitment at the last election. Will the Minister confirm that the Government have a commitment to legislate for coastal access during the current Parliament? Will he confirm that they are looking at the concept of a corridor or a zone between the edges of the sea, farmland on cliff tops and marshes, to allow people to go down to the sea, to walk along the coasts, and to benefit from the tremendous experience in the natural landscapes and wildlife that they offer?
My Lords, will the Minister clarify issues arising from recommendations made at the meeting yesterday? First, it was presumed that no compensation would be paid for the compulsory take-over of land. Secondly, although the CROW Act stated that access to the countryside should be opened up, it also stated that we should protect and conserve wildlife and the environment. The RSPB, for one, is very concerned that this corridor will be opened up willy-nilly, without considering certain exemptions.
My Lords, with due respect to the noble Baroness, we have not had the report of the meeting yesterday. The Government will receive it from Natural England by the end of this month. There have been press reports about what occurred, but I am not in a position to say that the Government have received the report. Whatever view is taken, there will be a consultation and there will be no attempt at confiscation. There must be a reasonable way of dealing with people who have private land on the coast, whether it is hotels or people owning beaches rather than the foreshore. Compensation is therefore some way down the road. We have got to look at the costs and the benefits of this proposal. One should not take literally the report by the excellent journalist Valerie Elliott in the Times today about an attempt to rush a Bill through Parliament “within a year”. I can assure the House, no way.
My Lords, Section 3 is the power to extend to coastal land. In my original Answer, I said that Natural England was due to report on ways of improving access, including the use of Section 3, but Section 3 may not be the option taken to deal with this issue. As I understand it, there will be other options. It is just one of the options; it will not necessarily be the way forward.
Yes, my Lords, that is absolutely the case. It is our intention to have as much land available to people as possible, whether countryside or costal access, other areas such as inland waterways, or along the Thames, as has happened in recent years. That, in principle, is that way to do it. However, one has to be practical and do it with consultation and in partnership in a way that allows you to get maximum benefit for everyone, and not go around deliberately trying to upset people.
My Lords, the noble Baroness suggested that there would be the compulsory take-over of land. Will the Minister confirm that under none of the proposals that has been put forward, or is being considered, will there be any compulsory take-over or confiscation of land? More than half of England’s coastline on the edge of farmland is already open to access and it works perfectly well. That kind of reasonable and sensible arrangement is being suggested for the rest of it.
Health: Sports Medicine
My Lords, sport and exercise medicine is the newest medical specialty in the UK, and we are looking to expand it as part of workforce development across England. Local development plans will need to include action to recruit and develop the appropriate staff required to deliver those services.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Does he agree with Charles Galasko, president of the Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine, that not having sufficient doctors in the community means that those who have suffered, for instance, soft tissue injury end up going to casualty, having several weeks’ referral before they receive physiotherapy, and then having injuries that are more chronic and intractable, and thus cost the NHS considerably more money. That probably also interferes with their work patterns.
My Lords, that is a very persuasive argument, which is why we have taken the initiative in working with the medical profession to develop this new specialty. We should recognise that often GPs in primary care do an excellent job in relation to some sports injuries, and my understanding is that an increasing number of muscular-skeletal clinics have been set up to deal with the very issues that the noble Lord suggested, and in quick time.
My Lords, the clinics that I am aware of are in St George’s London, Leeds, Sheffield, Colchester, Bath and Cardiff. There may be others and I would be happy to write to the noble Baroness about them. It clearly makes sense if you can set up specialist clinics that allow patients to be treated very quickly with early intervention, as the noble Lord suggested. That applies not just to sports injuries but, for instance, to occupational ill health—30 per cent of such cases are muscular-skeletal disease injuries and, again, early action can prevent people having to leave work and go on to incapacity benefit.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that last summer fewer than 10 per cent of all the graduates on our physiotherapy courses managed to find a job within the NHS? Given that their training costs were in excess of £70 million, that many of those unemployed could well find their way into sports medicine, and that the hospital waiting lists in this area are getting worse, can he assure us that steps are being taken to address this matter? I probably need to declare an interest, in that my daughter runs a physiotherapy department in one of our training hospitals.
Yes, my Lords; while I do not accept the figure given, I understand that there has been a particular challenge this year for newly qualified physiotherapists finding employment within the National Health Service. Only two weeks ago, NHS employers held a summit with various interested parties to discuss this issue. A range of actions have been agreed, including encouraging current basic-grade physiotherapists to apply for higher-graded jobs—thus releasing vacancies for basic-grade physiotherapists—more career advice for physiotherapists and the encouragement of joint appointments between the NHS and the independent sector.
My Lords, is it not the case in National Health Service practices that an increasing burden of administration is falling on the doctor and that more and more treatment is in the hands of the practice nurse? That trend seems irreversible. Admirable though practice nurses are, if you have a sporting injury you would be lucky to find one who would be able to give you the advice that you probably need, even for simple sprains and injuries suffered on the football field.
No, my Lords, that is not my experience, nor is it the experience of many patients. Yes, many staff in primary care are taking on new roles and responsibilities, which often means that patients do not have to go to hospitals because they can have checks in the surgery; but, due to the other changes being made in primary care, GPs actually have more time to deal with patients.
Yes, my Lords. As the noble Baroness will know, the incidence of community-based MRSA is low in this country, but experience in the US certainly suggests that it can be spread in sports clubs. We have already issued guidance to the health service but we are looking at further guidance. I very much accept that her point is relevant to guidance and advice that should be given to the health service.
My Lords, given that as a society we actively encourage people to do more sport, for both public health and personal health reasons, should we not be rather concerned, as the Minister has already said, about people who get injured and need to be mobile for their jobs? Can he tell us how quickly the workforce development work will ensure that we get more physiotherapists in place and more specialist sports medicine in the NHS?
My Lords, I anticipate that in the near future we will have 40 specialist doctors, in addition to 12 starting training each year. With regard to the recruitment of newly qualified physiotherapists, it is worth bearing in mind that the vacancy rate for physiotherapists has dropped dramatically because of the increase in the number of training places. I fully agree with the noble Baroness’s first point. She will know that the joint strategy between my department and the DWP on health, work and well-being takes as its premise that early intervention, good occupational health services and good support from the NHS will stop many people going off work in the first place, and that applies as much to sports injuries as it does to occupational injuries.
Yes, my Lords. There should not be a theological dispute about the benefits of organised sport on the one hand and more general exercise on the other; in my view, the two go together. The more we can encourage young people in particular but the population as a whole to engage in exercise, the better it will be for their health and life outcomes.
My Lords, strict biosecurity requirements, wild bird surveillance and import controls are in place to minimise the risk of H5N1 being transmitted to poultry in the UK. With regard to the recent outbreak in Suffolk, we are currently investigating all possible routes of transmission. Defra’s interim epidemiological report into the source of the outbreak is available in the Library of the House.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, and perhaps we can all thank the veterinary services for the way in which they are manfully—and, I hope, womanfully—coping with this serious problem. Further to his Answer, will the noble Lord confirm that the origin of this contamination now appears to be clear and that it was definitely not wild birds? Will he also reassure the House that the Government are coping with the worrying stories that keep coming along of very poor live-poultry care in the East Anglian turkey-processing factories, sloppy hygiene procedures and misleading origin advertising? Are the Government able to deal with those matters satisfactorily as well?
My Lords, because of the investigations being undertaken, I am naturally limited in what I can say. But I can assure the noble Lord and the House that we have done thousands of surveillance operations, reports and investigations. They have been ongoing since the outbreak, as well as during the months beforehand, and they concern wild birds, dead birds and poultry houses across the country, but particularly in East Anglia. No evidence of H5N1 has been found other than in the Bernard Matthews plant at Holton. It appears that this is exclusively a Bernard Matthews Holton problem. There is no evidence of H5N1 anywhere in the wild bird, intensive poultry or free-range poultry populations in this country. I repeat: we have done thousands of surveillance operations, ongoing as I speak, with tests on dead birds, wild birds captured for that purpose and poultry houses. More poultry houses have joined the poultry register since the outbreak occurred; there are now 23,941 premises on the poultry register. There is no evidence at all of H5N1 other than at that one plant at Holton.
My Lords, the Minister might agree that Defra cannot be criticised for lack of assiduity in tracing where the virus has come from. Does he agree that the answer to the question of where it came from is absolutely paramount? We must on no account say that we do not know where it has come from and are not going to look.
My Lords, we are not saying that. It may be that we never pin it down. The work to find that out is going on now. As we know from what we have published so far, the test results from the Veterinary Laboratories Agency at Weybridge identified the strain found in Suffolk as 99.96 per cent identical to the strain found in Hungary. The questions arise of how it got here and of how it got from one poultry house to another shed at Holton. One realises that once the virus was identified at Holton, all the birds were clearly going to be culled. It may therefore be that transmission on the site occurred in that way, but how it got in there in the first place is the subject of ongoing investigations. It is important that we tie down how it got into that shed to start with. Given that the strain is virtually identical to that found in Hungary, we must find out how it got from Hungary, and from where in Hungary. Inquiries are going on now with our Hungarian partners in the European Commission to find out more about the outbreak in Hungary in the first place.
My Lords, does my noble friend recall a previous case when one dead swan was discovered on the coast of Fife? We ended up with ITN and the BBC doing their 10 o’clock and 10.30 news broadcasts fronted by reporters at—appropriately, in view of the name of the noble Lord who asked this Question—Cellardyke. Does the Minister believe that the media sometimes treat these issues with unnecessary alarm?
My Lords, I shall be careful what I say. One only has to read the press reports. The fact is that if people give out the maximum information to the public when these incidents arise, they help to protect public health, their own industry and their brand. The Government have given out the maximum amount of information we are responsible for, to reassure people and the industry. The industry and companies have a responsibility, however, to explain what they are doing. In this case, the press will report what they receive.
My Lords, has this particular strain of H5N1 been shown by research to be sensitive to the anti-viral agent Tamiflu? Tamiflu has been stockpiled in the event of any spread of the virus to the human population. Can the Minister give us any information about progress in producing a vaccine against the H5N1 virus?
My Lords, given the Bernard Matthews company’s original claim that there were no links between Hungary and Suffolk when it has now been established that there were regular poultry imports to its plant from Hungary, will the Minister’s department take appropriate action to prosecute it for endangering human and animal health if biosecurity failings are proved there?
My Lords, I can only say that the studies and investigations by the State Veterinary Service, the Meat Hygiene Service and the Food Standards Agency are ongoing. Appropriate action will be taken as a result of the investigations. I cannot go beyond that. There are clearly major issues of public and animal health and other matters. There is quite a lot of regulation in this area, and the regulatory authorities’ investigations are ongoing.
My Lords, will Defra be able to finalise where this disease has come from? At the moment, the Government’s move within the industry is to share the costs of future animal disease outbreaks. If one cannot get to the bottom of how a disease has come in, it is not fair to expect the industry to carry the costs. While on the subject of costs, how is Defra going to continue to fund itself? It was announced yesterday that the department has asked the Treasury to put £305 million on one side to cover the deficit from the fiasco of the single farm payments.
My Lords, I expected that question, but I am glad it has come at the end. One should not believe everything that one reads. The issue relating to contingency from the Treasury is true, but it is not as bad as it appears at first sight, and is certainly not as bad as it was reported on “Farming Today”. We are dealing with a two-year issue, and we know more about it now. As of the end of this week, we will have paid out more than £900 million of £1.5 billion for this year. That is a success by any standards, and is a big improvement on last year.
On the first part of the noble Baroness’s question, we need to find out where the disease came from, if that is possible. It is our intention to do so, but we may never find out. Trying to share the costs of animal health with the industry is ongoing and we are having discussions about it. We should not let this one case drive the policy because it appears to be isolated to one company at one location. It is not widespread across the rest of the industry, and it is in the industry’s interest to ensure that biodiversity issues are taken incredibly seriously. In that way, the rest of the industry is protected. The issues that the noble Baroness raises will be the subject of ongoing discussions because we are in consultation with the industry at the present time.
My Lords, with permission, a Statement on occupational pensions will be repeated later today. It will be delivered by my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton, and we plan to take it after the eighth speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Jay, in today’s major debate.
Business of the House: Debate Today
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in the name of my noble friend Lady Amos on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of Lord Hurd of Westwell set down for today shall be limited to five hours.—(Lord Rooker.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Housing (Tenancy Deposit Schemes) Order 2007
Docking of Working Dogs’ Tails (England) Regulations 2007
Mutilations (Permitted Procedures) (England) Regulations 2007
Welfare of Animals (Miscellaneous Revocations) (England) Regulations 2007
Decommissioning of Fishing Vessels Scheme 2007
Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations 2007
Environmental Offences (Use of Fixed Penalty Receipts) Regulations 2007
Local Electoral Administration and Registration Services (Scotland) Act 2006 (Consequential Provisions and Modifications) Order 2007
Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2007
Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) Order 2007
Post Office Network Subsidy Scheme Order 2007
Renewables Obligation Order 2006 (Amendment) Order 2007
Foyle and Carlingford Fisheries (Northern Ireland) Order 2007
Electricity (Single Wholesale Market) (Northern Ireland) Order 2007
My Lords, I beg to move the Motions standing in the name of my noble friend Lady Amos on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the orders be referred to a Grand Committee.—(Lord Rooker.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That it be an instruction to the Grand Committee to which the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill has been committed that they consider the Bill in the following order:
Clauses 1 to 8,
Clauses 10 to 23,
Clauses 24 to 37,
Clauses 38 to 42,
Clauses 43 to 46,
Clauses 47 and 48,
Clauses 49 to 52.—(Lord Rooker.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
rose to call attention to the issues which Her Majesty’s Government face in Iraq; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I do not apologise to the House for bringing its attention back to the problems of Iraq. I believe that we are living through one of the worst setbacks for British foreign policy for many years. We are still living with that story, and we cannot be sure how it will end. There are two questions before us—when I say “before us”, I do not mean just before the Government, because these are matters for Parliament and for everybody. The first question is how we can bring this war to an end that is tolerable for us, our servicemen and, above all, the people of Iraq. The Prime Minister made a start down this new road yesterday. The second question is how we can learn the lessons from our mistakes so that we do not repeat them. In the time available to me, I shall concentrate on the second question about learning lessons. I shall develop the case for a proper inquiry into the preparation for and conduct of this war.
I would like to say a word or two first about the present situation as I see it. We are faced with the collapse of a state, Iraq, which has been rickety for many years, partly because of the brutality and corruption of its dictator, and made more rickety when undermined by the process of sanctions. In April 2003 we brought that rickety structure down to the ground. We shook it to pieces and then we stamped on the pieces. That structure, that state, has not been reconstructed, now three and a half years after the invasion. The test is simple; it is posed in the Baker-Hamilton report and bluntly answered. The report wrote:
“The Iraqi Government is not effectively providing its people with basic services: electricity, drinking water, sewerage, healthcare and education”.
The elements of a new state lie around. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, constantly tells us and will tell us again today, there are good people trying to do good things. An assembly has been elected, a constitution has been drafted, although it is agreed that it should be revised, and there have been elections—though I must say that the elections have been used by the people of Iraq rather, it seems to me, to register the tribe or sect to which they belong. Certainly they have not been able as a result of those elections to provide themselves with a valid Government, because the Ministers huddled in the green zone up until now have not shown themselves capable—maybe they have not been able—to administer a state.
So the country is fragmenting all the time. The biggest fragment, the Shia fragment, is fragmenting within itself. Only the Kurds in the north enjoy a reasonably peaceful autonomy, which of course was not created by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 but by arrangements made after the Gulf War of 1991. Elsewhere, into the gap where there ought to be orderly government have poured the forces of disorder: militias, criminals, terrorists and corruption. Saddam Hussein ran a corrupt state, but last year corruption was estimated at between $5 billion and $7 billion a year, and 150,000 to 200,000 barrels of oil are stolen every day. Some estimates are that half a million barrels of oil are stolen every day. These are not wild figures. Some of the Baker-Hamilton report’s recommendations have been disputed or ignored, but I have seen no one dispute the actual analysis; and the figures I have given come from that report.
Al-Qaeda is now established in Iraq for the first time. It was not there in 2003; it is there today. The death toll is formidable. We concentrate—and this is perfectly natural—on our own service casualties, at just over 100, and the Americans do the same. The estimates for the number of Iraqi civilian dead vary hugely because there are no valid figures, but the number killed since the invasion is in the wide bracket of 50,000 to 150,000. The United Nations figure for last year alone is 34,000 Iraqi civilians killed. They were not killed, of course, by American and British troops but in the presence of American and British troops, who have been helpless to save them, although they were dispatched to rescue Iraq from its problems.
In these circumstances the number of Iraqis who leave the country is not surprising. Two million have left and others leave as soon as they can find somewhere to go. We are talking of course overwhelmingly of professional people, who can get out and find something to do elsewhere. A total of 1.8 million are displaced within their own country as a result of different kinds of ethnic cleansing.
Are those the signs of a country slowly reviving under our care? Are they not rather proofs of a country still losing blood? That is why the critics and opponents of that war, that invasion, are now in the majority in this country, as in the United States. It does not follow that those of us who have always opposed the war believe in immediate withdrawal. We are where we are. We should not, in my view, have joined the Americans in the invasion, but we did and we cannot leave them in the lurch. That is why I welcome what the Prime Minister announced yesterday about the drawdown of British troops, of which Ministers have spoken in this House and elsewhere for some time.
The Government should not deceive themselves. They should not be unrealistic or try to persuade us of something that is unreal about what we will be leaving behind, whether in Basra or in Iraq as a whole, as the American and British troops in the end withdraw. We shall not be handing over cities and provinces to stable institutions based on democracy and the rule of law. With luck—I underline, “with luck”—we shall leave behind in Iraq something like a larger Lebanon, maybe just holding together, though subject to outbursts of sectarian violence, maybe just avoiding a civil war, though very far from reconciliation. That is an Iraq totally removed from the country that we aimed to create through our invasion. It is an Iraq that now, so far from serving as a model and inspiration to the Middle East, is regarded by its neighbours and everyone in the Middle East as a dark warning.
Against that background the case for an inquiry into these matters seems overwhelming. Two sets of arguments were used initially to support and justify the war. One set was based on the threat to our security. That set of arguments broadly collapsed when it was found that there were no weapons of mass destruction. The second set of arguments was that it was our duty to rescue the people of Iraq from their brutal dictator. If we look at the results of that attempted rescue, they do not justify the invasion.
How was that double miscalculation arrived at? The first set of arguments about weapons of mass destruction has been investigated and analysed to a considerable extent. We have the Hutton report and the report by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, on the use of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. The noble Lord said, prudently, in his report that he and his colleagues did not regard his report on the question of the use of intelligence as the last word. An inquiry will need to look again at his serious, though soberly stated, criticism of the use of intelligence.
However, in a way, the noble Lord urged us further. The paragraph in his report on the machinery of government perhaps lay a little outside his terms of reference, and he did not pursue it, but he blazed a trail for us. Very significantly, he criticised what he called,
“the informality and circumscribed character of the government’s procedures”,
which make informed collective judgment more difficult. That is the noble Lord’s language; it is the kind of language which we are used to in our polite discussions in this House, but the crude profession of journalism very reasonably summed up his criticism as the criticism of sofa government. That aspect—what has gone wrong with the machinery of government—should be at the heart of an inquiry. The centralised direction of foreign policy, the sidelining of the Foreign Office and the consequent ignoring of experience inside and outside the Foreign Office, the tendency to listen to messages that those who are listening wish to hear and to sideline the others, and the tendency to take decisions informally without full and proper consultation are all allegations that need to be tested in an inquiry. Something went dangerously wrong at the heart of the decision-taking processes of our country.
American democracy has now woken up and is more vigorous in these things than our own. We now have across the Atlantic an outpouring of books and interviews, and we are only at the beginning of it. Now that we have a Democratic Congress, this process will continue. None of us could have mastered it all, but I have tried at any rate to follow some of the key things that have been published. One thing is common to them all: little or no attention is paid to British views or the British contribution to planning. I am not talking about our armed services and what they do, because I think that their contribution is understood; I am talking about the planning, the assumptions made at the beginning, and the thoughts on which the whole thing rested.
There is almost universal silence on any contribution made by the British side. Can one imagine an American history of the American part played in the Second World War that did not pay attention to the views of Winston Churchill, or an American history of the Reagan presidency that ignored, for example, the contributions made at the Reykjavik summit, which I remember, by my noble friend Lady Thatcher? We are junior partners to the United States. Both Churchill and my noble friend were junior partners, and knew it. We seem to have lost that art, which is not an easy one, of being a junior partner, and we must somehow recover it.
The most extraordinary and damaging question, into which an inquiry is needed, lay outside the inquiry of the noble Lord, Lord Butler. How did we proceed to war? How did we send our servicemen to kill and be killed without any serious planning of what would follow the immediate overthrow of Saddam Hussein? How did we take that decision on the basis of expectations that the Iraqis would generally welcome invasion and an army of occupation, contrary to the lessons of our own history, in Iraq and elsewhere, and indeed to common sense? I am genuinely amazed at how that can have happened, having had a little experience, as many noble Lords have, of this particular bit of our decision-taking process.
This was well summarised in the recent Brookings Institution report, which said:
“It was arrogance in the face of history that led us to blithely assume we could invade without preparing for an occupation, and we would do well to show greater humility when assimilating its lessons”.
That, in a way, is my text. Did we query that arrogance in the face of history when there was time to do so? Did we bring our own experience to bear? Apparently not. One commentator wrote about the “blind spot” in planning. Another wrote:
“It remains astounding that the coalition had no idea how to run the country they had just conquered”.
These are quotations not from captious commentators outside the event but from Sir Christopher Meyer, Her Majesty’s ambassador in Washington, and Mr Robin Cook, Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, both of whom were closely involved in the matters of which they wrote. Today in the newspapers we read of a similar statement by Sir Jeremy Greenstock, again an able and wholly dedicated public servant with precisely the experience that should have been brought to bear.
The Prime Minister urges us to look forward and not back, but you can make better decisions in the future only if you know how you made your mistakes in the past. Somewhere in our system, fences were broken and walls were breached, and we need to repair them before the system is put to the test again.
Some argue—I hope that Ministers will not shelter behind this argument, because it seems quite wrong—that we would be in some way prejudicing and upsetting our Armed Forces if an inquiry were announced. We are extraordinarily fortunate in our armed services, which are quite different from the services in which some of us served briefly after the war. They are better trained, more intelligent and much more aware of the world. They know perfectly well that the Iraq war is now questioned and opposed by many—indeed, most—people. It is not a happy position for them to be in, but it is not created by the prospect of an inquiry. Of course they know it and it is patronising to suppose that they do not. The reassurance that we can give them is that what they are doing is praised and supported wholeheartedly by the overwhelming majority, even among those of us who are angry that they were led into this position.
The Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, in his rather remarkable outburst/statement some weeks ago, spoke from the heart of a covenant between servicemen and our Government. That covenant is now shaky for many reasons. I am glad that your Lordships will have an opportunity to discuss this next month in a debate to be introduced by my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater. I believe that our servicemen are entitled to an inquiry on these matters and to ask that the mistakes be identified so that they are not repeated.
It is not a rush, but the matter should not be left so long that memories fade and the trail of evidence goes cold. I therefore support what Mr William Hague said in another place; I support the suggestion that the Government should say now that they will establish an inquiry and that it should be set up by the end of the year. The precedents are there—Crimea, Dardanelles and Falklands. The Dardanelles inquiry was set up during a war, with strong support from the man who was chiefly pointed at—Mr Winston Churchill—so that is a good precedent. The case is stronger than the case for setting up the Franks inquiry into the Falklands war, which we did, after all, win. But, in all those cases, Parliament took its responsibility, which I believe we must do.
This should be an inquiry not in anger. Some of us are angry, but the inquiry should be cool and sober. It should not be a trial; it should not be pointing to impeachment or criminal proceedings; it should be chaired by a judge; it should not be thronged by lawyers; and it should not be like the Bloody Sunday inquiry, which drags on. These were enormously difficult decisions for Ministers to take. However lamentable and, in my view, predictable their mistakes, they were decisions taken in good faith by those concerned—I do not doubt that—which should be part of the background. I would suggest an inquiry of privy counsellors, including individuals outside the present Privy Council who would be well qualified to serve on the inquiry and would become privy counsellors for the purpose of receiving information. The inquiry should be appointed by and answer to Parliament; it should have full access to all papers; and it should meet in public, except occasionally where that may not be right for intelligence reasons. But the report should be in full to the public through Parliament.
The aim should not be to punish, or for X and Y to say, “We were right”, and so on; that is secondary. The aim should be to learn. I believe that this is a necessary undertaking because there is much to be learnt. I hope that the Government will tell us now that at the right time and in the right way they will come to Parliament and set such an inquiry in hand. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, for tabling this debate and for giving the House the opportunity to discuss what it is hoped is a broader picture of Iraq than the concentration on the negative that inevitably dominates the current media coverage. Whether one agreed or disagreed with taking military action against the Saddam regime in 2003, no one can be completely satisfied with the way things have developed since then. It is, however, important to look not only at 2003 onwards when considering Iraq today, as if the horrors of Saddam’s tyranny did not brutalise and exacerbate tensions between Sunni, Shia and Kurd, fracturing Iraqi society. His removal was almost bound to lead to an explosion of pent-up resentment and hatreds. We know from the Balkans and elsewhere that such violence almost inevitably results from the removal of a dictatorial regime, and Iraq was a society held in the grip of a fearsomely efficient terror machine that was breathtaking in its brutality. These conflicts have now come into the open and it is important to realise that it was not the military intervention that created them.
As the House knows, because I have expressed my views on Iraq often over the past couple of years, I consider our military action in 2003 to have been legally, politically and morally correct. Indeed, I would have wanted such action much earlier, and there were specific situations after 1991 when we could and, in my opinion, should have acted. I do not think that we should have stopped when we did in 1991. Let us not go into that, but it is part of the reason for the reaction of the Iraqi population to the invasion, an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd. They did not trust us, and why should they after we let the Shia down in 1991 so badly that they were massacred in their thousands?
Whether others think as I do or think the exact opposite, we have all expressed disquiet in this House about some of the decisions taken after the invasion, such as the disbandment of the Iraqi army and the failure to tackle Moqtada al-Sadr back in April 2003 when he was clearly responsible for the murder in Najaf of the respected 42 year-old Shia cleric leader, al-Khoei, who had just returned to Iraq from exile in London after the invasion. And not least it has to be regretted that the detailed planning in the US State Department for handling the civil situation after the invasion and overthrow of Saddam, all of which is detailed in Bob Woodward’s excellent book, Plan of Attack, was never put into action. However, history is full of “ifs” and as the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, said, we are where we are and we have to address the current situation.
I say with the greatest of respect to the distinguished members of the Iraq Study Group that I found the Baker-Hamilton report rather disappointing—long on worthy ends and objectives but short on practical suggestions for the means to achieve them. I also sympathise with President Talabani, who expressed disappointment at what he termed the “colonial” tone of the report. Of course that is not to say that there is not some worth in it, but above all I think that it showed only what was already known: that it was a very complex picture and the solution had to lie in the hands of the Iraqis; that it would be good to involve other countries in the area, especially neighbours; and above all, attempts to bring about conciliation would decide the success or failure of the future of Iraq.
How to go about all this is the question. Those of us who had the opportunity a few weeks ago of speaking to the vice-president of Iraq, Tariq al-Hashimi, a courageous anti-Ba’athist Sunni, were impressed by his dedication to the cause of trying to make a democratic Iraq succeed and his determination to try to do that with Shia Prime Minister Maliki and Kurdish President Talabani, and to work with them on a programme of mutual reconciliation to which Prime Minister Maliki has pledged himself to give the highest priority. There are some encouraging signs that in the Sunni insurgency, even in al-Anbar, Sunnis are turning against the al-Qaeda element, whose brutality is helping to expose their opportunism in pretending to support the Sunni cause. Al-Qaeda cares no more for the mainstream Iraqi Sunnis than it does for mainstream Palestinians or for any other group not sharing its extreme views but providing them with an opportunity to exploit local grievances. By the way, al-Qaeda was present before 2003 in Iraq. It was very active in Kurdistan, operating as a group there to try to bring down the Kurdish Administration.
It must also never be forgotten that a major obstacle to reconciliation is the many years of poison that Saddam’s regime spread between the majority and brutally oppressed Shia and the minority and favoured Sunni, reinforcing and exploiting historical differences. Of course it takes time to heal these wounds and we should remember that the Maliki elected Government have been in power only for nine months. It is clear that the Iraqi Government want coalition troops to leave Iraq, but only when, and not before, the security situation means that Iraqis have a chance to succeed in running their country themselves without outside interference from any quarter, including their neighbours.
There are parts of Iraq, especially Baghdad, where the reality is a long way from the coalition being able to hand over control. But Baghdad is not Iraq, and 14 out of the 18 provinces are relatively peaceful. Let us see how the Baghdad strategy just being launched by the Iraqi and American forces unfolds. If it goes according to plan, it represents the best chance for resolving the problems of terrorism, sectarianism, power struggles and criminality that have produced such misery for Baghdad’s inhabitants. Under the leadership of the new commander of the American forces, General Petraeus, who is credited with a very successful campaign in Mosul some three years ago that won hearts and minds, there is reason for cautious optimism.
It would take too long here today to give anything like a full account of the positive developments in today’s Iraq, such as the burgeoning of civil society, with thousands of NGOs registered, or the achievements of many courageous Iraqis who are struggling to make a success of a democratic Iraq. Some have given up comfortable lives abroad in exile to return to serve their country, such as the water Minister.
I should like, however, to take a moment to draw the attention of the House to the current visit to the UK of 11 representatives of the new Iraqi Teachers’ Union. All of them are teachers or school inspectors working in dangerous conditions and risking their lives to educate the young. Their views were summed up by a school inspector who had suffered under Saddam as optimistic that in two to three years the current problems will be ended and a new and better life expected. If they are optimistic, then so can we be, and we have a duty to help them to realise their hopes.
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State, Des Browne, recently outlined the three main elements of HMG’s security strategy. He said:
“First we are helping the Iraqis build up their own security forces. Second, as these forces develop we are handing them control province-by-province, city-by-city, and moving to the point where they have complete responsibility. Third, we are underwriting that hand-over process by leaving in place quick-response forces—not to do front-line security work but ready to support the Iraqis if the situation gets out of control”.
That clearly has to be the right strategy and its pace has to be dictated by the reality on the ground, not by setting arbitrary dates such as the end of October as Sir Menzies Campbell has done.
Of the four provinces under British leadership in the south, two were handed over to Iraqi control last summer and the security situation is said to be stable, with the Iraqi police and army working together and accountable to civil authority—not in ways, perhaps, that we are used to, but in ways appropriate to local needs. Yesterday’s very welcome Statement by the Prime Minister expressed the hope that,
“Maysan province can be transferred to full Iraqi control in the next few months, and Basra in the second half of the year”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/2/07; col. 264.]
But, of course, the speed of developments will always be dependent on the reality on the ground.
Basra is the most difficult province mainly because of rival Shia power blocs, but last October, Operation Sinbad started and, as we know from the Prime Minister’s Statement yesterday, it has been a considerable success. The British Armed Forces deserve our congratulations on what they, along with the Iraqis, have achieved. Operation Sinbad was to re-establish security in Basra using confidence-building measures and following up with civic programmes such as laying water pipes and refurbishing primary health centres and schools and so on. Governor al-Waili has supported and praised Operation Sinbad for its positive impact on Basra’s future. Much has been achieved, but handover processes have to be handled carefully, both in Iraq and in the UK. Handover must not be presented as retreat and it has to be followed by a period of support with training and mentoring.
Still, there is a long list of impressive statistics arising from Operation Sinbad. Here are some examples. Last September, 20 per cent of police stations in Basra were judged of acceptable standard; now 55 per cent are, with 78 per cent of cases completed in investigative courts. Some 92 per cent of Basrawis now say that they feel secure in their neighbourhoods. Around 24,500 short-term jobs were created on the building and refurbishment projects.
I finish with another quotation from my right honourable friend Des Browne. He said that,
“we must get used to thinking in terms not just of our strategy but of our role in their strategy”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/12/06; col. 726.]
That has to be the only way forward for us and the Iraqis. With the welcome developments in Basra that were announced yesterday, we are on our way.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, started with an apology for drawing our attention to this matter again. It is not he who should be giving any apology at all. It is only right that we should return to consider, in a sober and sombre way, the grave situation in which we find ourselves and the even more grave situation in which the people of Iraq find themselves. Make no mistake about it—and I know noble Lords do not—not only is it a failing state that is splintering, with people set against each other, but many of those who have given support and assistance to us may be the ones who will suffer most in the days to come. For that, we bear responsibility, particularly those who took us into this ill advised war.
The noble Lord has directed our attention to the need for a serious inquiry—not a legal or political question, but a sober reflection on what has gone wrong and why. I and my colleagues fully support that. It is a matter that should be addressed, and he has described well today how we might begin our thinking towards that. Much of what that inquiry needs to address, however, is already perfectly plain to all of us. We do not need to wait for an inquiry to be clear about many of those issues.
The state in Iraq is collapsed. Why? Because we brought it down. It is not enough to say that we did not create the terrorists, that they were there in any case. Anyone who goes into a divided country and removes the structures and institutions of the state has to bear responsibility for the fact that the existing fractures, with nothing to hold them together, will appear in a gross way. That is an inevitable consequence, and if one does not understand that, with all the experience of history and military intervention that this country has had, one simply has not been paying attention to history. Maybe that is indeed one of the issues our minds were being drawn to.
In any situation where there are deep fractures and fissures—and we have seen it more recently on our own continent; I live in a part of the world where that is the case—they are held together not just by the bonds of personal relationships, but by governmental structures and institutions. If those are wiped to the side and all of those who had power and responsibility are set to the side in the way that was done in Iraq, without any serious contribution to law and order being put in their place, what can one expect?
It is also clear that we must be a great deal more careful, reflective and honest about the handling of our own intelligence. It is clear that both here and in the United States of America, considering the material coming forward in an objective and reflective way would not have led us into making the interventions that were made. There is a tendency to bend information and material in the direction one finds attractive or supportive of the decisions one has already made. I remember asking in this House whether decisions had been made well in advance of the invasion. I was told that the answer was no. It turned out that that was not the whole truth. Decisions had clearly been made, and intelligence and material were being pressed to support them. That is a clear lesson we can learn right now and begin to put into operation.
We also know that in any of these situations, the fight for hearts and minds brings results in the long run. I recall watching the news and seeing planes meting out destruction on a regime which all of us abominated and which weapons and military interventions can destroy. That is all they can do—weapons cannot create something new. Only the commitment of people on the ground will achieve that.
Anyone who had thought about it in advance must surely have realised that the notion that we would simply be welcomed in the streets and that everything would turn out well was at best naive and at worst intellectually dishonest. In that whole region, the wealth of this country’s influence and respect has been frittered away—no, cast away—over the years so that it is extraordinarily difficult for this country to exert the influence that it properly did in the past in a positive way because of this recent adventure and other related adventures.
Something else that we know very well, because we have contributed to its creation, is the importance of the institutions and structures of the international community. These cannot be thrown to the side without deep fractures appearing in the global community. When, sometimes, our colleagues around the world take a different view, our approach should be not to disregard it but engage in diplomacy and to persuade people by the force of law, not the law of force. These are not new things; these are things we all know well in our heart. It is time for us to return to them.
There are some small indications that this may be the case. We now have an indication of a drawdown of British soldiers from Iraq, and I hope that that presages a commitment to do it within a reasonable time. It will not be sufficient for them to stay there, to be a target for attack, giving an opportunity for insurgent groups to show their manhood by who can kill the most British soldiers. I hope that we will properly withdraw our soldiers in an orderly fashion and then begin the task of repairing their resourcing, morale and capability for the responsibilities they will continue to have.
We must also seek to repair our own infrastructure in terms of diplomacy and foreign affairs. Much of our wealth and resource in that area has been dismissed and disregarded. Indeed, some have left of their own accord because they could not, with all integrity, continue to serve when they knew what they had been saying truthfully was being disregarded and they could not in all honesty continue to follow the instructions they were being given. It is time for us to pay attention to the repair of those diplomatic resources as well.
This is not a time for us to engage in any kind of party political play, because our whole country has lost its place in that region. We must start to repair that. We must be prepared to be more critical of our long-standing friends. Again, there is an element of that when we see an indication from the Prime Minister that he is prepared to give the national unity Government who are to be established in the Palestinian Authority more of a chance and the possibility of engagement rather than immediately dismissing them, as appears to be the position of our allies in the United States of America. I hope very much that that indicates a preparedness to take our counsel from our own experience and to share it with our friends and colleagues rather than to follow them into foolishness and danger.
I have two or three matters that are very much to the fore in my mind which I wish to put to the Minister. First, on the question of withdrawal, we see some indication that British soldiers could be there for many more years. I appeal to the Minister to tell us that there is a definitive timescale for withdrawal—that we are not committed to stay there in some ephemeral “there for as long as we’re needed” way, but that there is a real commitment to precisely when we will go.
Secondly, we must support the development of some kind of inclusive, semi-permanent conference for the region that will bring people together. I say “inclusive”, because it is not sufficient for outsiders to be saying what should happen to the region. We should be engaging with Syria and Iran, not with a finger-pointing diplomacy that warns them of the consequences if they do not do what we say, but with a proper diplomatic engagement that listens to their views and then tries to explain ours, without the inappropriate and early threat of the use of force.
On that question of the use of force, I ask for some reassurance for your Lordships' House that we will not be following into any kind of attack on Iran, whether by air or otherwise. We must learn the lessons of the mistakes that have been made. Our American colleagues did not learn the lessons of Vietnam and they are repeating them. It is not clear to me that our friends in Israel have learnt the lessons of the recent war in south Lebanon, and I very much hope that they are not in danger of repeating them. Whatever our friends and allies do, we must not follow them into another mistake. Perhaps if we give them a clear indication that we would not follow them in the event of any kind of military attack on Iran, that might help to prevent another disaster.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to address the House and your Lordships on this first occasion, and I am immensely grateful to all those who have given me unstinting help in my arrival period here.
Iraq, indeed, is a world theatre and it has a stage on which the British Armed Forces have played a consistently high-profile role during the past four years. In doing so, they have faced a degree of public scrutiny and analysis not experienced in recent years. They have been and they continue to be asked to operate along the roughest edges of humanity while observing the civilised norms of the society from which they are drawn. That is no easy task, and it has put an unusual strain on the relationship between soldier and nation. It is on this relationship that I would like to address your Lordships today.
We of course are all extremely lucky. We enjoy an exceptional standard of living in a secure environment. Although there have been some appalling terrorist incidents during the past 30 years, the vast majority of British citizens have lived in peace and are able to go about their daily business without concern for their safety or that of their families. Indeed, society has rarely been so far removed from war. Periodically its effects come crashing in on our sensibilities, but even post-September 11 New York is far removed from the unrelenting social consequences of war. For many people, war and its instruments may as well be on another planet. They have no experience of the horrors of war or of the poverty and trauma that flow from insecurity and conflict.
For most of us, of course, this is a very happy situation, but it has not come about by chance. It has been achieved only by constant vigilance; by actively identifying and dealing with threats; countering instability; and, when necessary, using force to impose peace. Fortunately, too, there are those who understand that there is less discretion available in wars of choice than they might have believed—that failing to counter evil on its own ground merely brings it closer to home. Ultimately, whatever has been achieved has been through the sacrifice made in our Armed Forces. This sacrifice has been paid in blood by successive generations of service men and women who have served their country, not just those who fought in the two great wars of the 20th century. Every year since 1945, with the sole exception of 1968, British service men and women have been killed on operations. Indeed, over that period some 5,500 have been killed in action. Today those same folk continue to defend our freedoms.
Of course, it is not just those who die who make a sacrifice. All who serve on operations put their lives at risk for our benefit. Countless numbers have been wounded, while many others have been psychologically damaged, something that frequently emerges only later in life. These are the hidden costs of freedom, and all too often they go unrecognised.
Over recent months, as the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, has said, your Lordships will have heard much talk of the covenant that must exist between a Government and the Armed Forces—an unwritten but essential contract that, in return for the sacrifice made by those in the forces, the Government will ensure that they are equipped properly, given the best possible care if they become casualties, and treated fairly. On the one hand, the ethos of the Armed Forces is sustained by all service men and women doing their duty with an implacable will to succeed, accepting their grave responsibility and legal right to fight and kill according to their orders and their unlimited liability to give their lives for others. On the other hand, they must be confident that in return the nation will look after them and their families.
Moreover, because these people are called upon to put the needs of the nation and the forces before their own, they forgo some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces. In the same way, the unique nature of military operations means that the Armed Forces differ from all other institutions, and must be sustained and provided for accordingly by the nation.
Your Lordships will know that I am the governor of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, which is in effect a self-contained village centred on its own chapel, its communal dining hall, its infirmary and its social club. It is a community of old and infirm veterans with similar backgrounds and like experiences. They are a present and constant link with the past, and the veterans of Mons, Malaya, Korea and Northern Ireland worship in the same chapel, sit at the same dining tables and take their ease in the same colonnade as the ghosts of Ramillies and Fontenoy, Plassey and Inkerman. Indeed, it will not be long before we see our Falklands veterans filling the wards. The battle honours inscribed on the panels of their great dining hall tell the enduring story of the British Army, but the institution is a living memorial to the sacrifices made and the very embodiment of the covenant about which we have spoken—which must continue to be there for our future veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, whether men or women.
This covenant is more than just a deal between the Government and the Armed Forces. That the Government have a grave responsibility in this respect is irrefutable, but there must also be a covenant between the rest of our nation and those who defend it and fight for its interests. Every citizen should recognise the price that has been and continues to be paid by others to sustain the freedoms they enjoy.
We see very clear indicators that our people are less willing to make sacrifices for our Armed Forces. The South Atlantic Fund after the Falkland Islands conflict in the 1980s raised some £11.5 million; the first Gulf War of the early 1990s raised some £3.5 million. We have raised less than £300,000 for the current conflict. The British affinity between soldier and people is diluting. There are many reasons: the immunisation of our citizens to the horrors of conflict through saturation with media images, none more stark than those we see from Iraq; the resentment at our involvement there; and the damage done to the Armed Forces’ reputation through allegations of war crimes, even though nearly all have been ill founded, are but some.
We know that elections are won on public services—education, health, law and order, and transport—but public submission, or even consent, to underinvestment in defence, arguably the greatest public service of them all, is as physically and politically painful, and potentially far more catastrophic, than underinvestment in hospitals and railways. If we, as a nation, are going to honour those who have served their country, if we are going to deliver on our part of the covenant, then I put it to your Lordships that every citizen of this country has a part to play, a debt to honour, a personal sacrifice to make and that those who have benefited most from the freedoms we enjoy have the greatest debt.
Once a year we proclaim, “We will remember them”, but how many actually give expression to that beyond having a moment’s silence and buying a poppy? Surely that is not sufficient. To adapt a well known phrase, as relevant today as ever it has been: “Their yesterday was given for our today”. None of us should forget that.
My Lords, it is a real pleasure as well as a privilege to congratulate the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker of Aldringham, on his illuminating and moving maiden speech. We are fortunate to have, again, a very distinguished former Chief of the General Staff. He has been a cold warrior, a commander in Northern Ireland and head of NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps in the hotter war of Bosnia, implementing the Dayton agreement. In spite of the fact that he was head of the Army and then head of the Armed Forces, I am told that he might not have been in the Army at all but for a disagreement with his headmaster. That was our luck. As he was born and brought up in southern Africa, I am sure that we all look forward also to hearing more about his wider interests, such as the Desmond Tutu Foundation. We welcome that.
In this debate, for which we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, I would like to call attention to another group in the struggle for Iraq, but one without arms—the British reconstruction and development workers and their colleagues. This small group has been in Basra and Baghdad since 2003, although the usual span for each individual is less than a year because of the danger, difficulty and stress of this environment. They will be there when the soldiers have left.
Any one of them, too, can be injured or blown up. Their working lives are framed by procedures to protect their own safety or that of their Iraqi colleagues or the infrastructure that they are helping to repair. They work in an environment without safe public transport, without reliable power or water delivery, without access to banking and credit systems and without much of the ordinary day-to-day ingredients of law and order. Indeed, their task is precisely to help to restore this environment for the people of Iraq.
So far they have achieved £78 million-worth of electricity and water supplies. By the summer, 24-hour electricity will be available to a million Iraqis. The great 90-metre chimney of the Al Hartha power station in the south was about to collapse, which would have lost half of Basra’s power. DfID’s local Iraqi engineers were able to get it repaired, with great personal courage, dedication and professionalism, thus securing 24-hour electricity to 85,000 households. This also provided jobs for 100 local people. These people, too, work under continual threat of violence from armed militias, in temperatures often of 50 degrees Celsius. DfID supervision of the project meant a dangerous boat trip, on a route where lives have been lost, in heavy body armour, under armed protection.
That heat makes a water supply even more important. DfID is improving access to water for about a million Basrawis, again providing them with jobs on the way, and funding clean drinking water as well as the building of a water training centre to teach maintenance skills. Roads and sewerage infrastructure are being rebuilt; there will soon be a new gas pumping station, using £9 million of our funds, which will add 60 megawatts to the national grid. Millions of people have better health and better capacity to go about their lives because of our help. Most of this is achieved by the UK-led provincial reconstruction team, which includes military and civilian members from several countries.
It is not only the physical infrastructure that DfID is helping so hugely to rebuild. Its expertise in enabling and training Governments themselves to govern better has funded budget preparation, proper public expenditure processes, the only civilian capacity-building effort in the crucial Ministry of the Interior, police training, the development of truly independent television and radio studios, support for civil society groups to take part in political processes, the conduct of elections, including voter education for 300,000 people in remote areas, and the encouragement of the necessary private sector growth.
This is apart from on-the-ground co-ordination with the World Bank, whose trust funds have used our contribution to rehabilitate 500 schools, train 3,700 health staff and provide learning materials for 10 million children. And DfID has just given £4 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross for its humanitarian work for the one in eight Iraqis who are refugees—displaced people—in their own country. Altogether, our total commitment will reach £644 million; and we have supported the Iraqi Government’s major debt reduction deal, which will release more reconstruction funds. But the brave people who carry out British development policy on the ground have made a very great difference. We should acknowledge with gratitude and humility this unremitting effort and its achievements, carried out in perhaps the most difficult and dangerous circumstances in the world.
The pity is that it cannot be more effective. Daily violence can sabotage all our and other aid organisations’ efforts. As one DfID official said drily, “The current security environment in Iraq poses obstacles to carrying out ‘normal’ development work”. When the headlong sectarian violence is curbed, and those forces outside Iraq which encourage it are dissuaded, Iraq will have a solid chance to return to its potential of 20 years ago. Human security is, therefore, the foremost development need. Its integration with the reconstruction so gallantly being carried out will create the space for legitimate political authority to thrive.
There is another side to funding Iraq’s recovery to which I suggest we need to pay more attention. The expenditure of DfID funds is very tightly controlled. This has not happened with a much larger tranche. The American Government shipped $12 billion in cash to Iraq in 2003 to be administered by the Coalition Provisional Authority, as the Guardian uncovered a couple of weeks ago. Its disbursement was, scandalously, wholly inadequately monitored. But there is more to it than that. On the formation of the CPA, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1483, which handed over to the CPA three kinds of fund: the Oil for Food money held by the UN; Iraqi assets frozen on the invasion of Kuwait; and further proceeds of oil sold prior to the handover to the CPA. The resolution required all those funds, in total $23 billion, to be administered transparently, to meet the needs of the Iraqi people and subject to international oversight.
When the CPA was formed, the UK as well as the US ambassador to the UN undertook to conduct the government and reconstruction of Iraq in a transparent manner. Where is the audit of that expenditure? What has that very large sum of money been spent on? What is its relation to the huge expansion of corruption which followed the setting up of the CPA administration and which has further catastrophically undermined the reconstruction of Iraq and the development of its polity? Although disbursement of those funds on the ground will have been carried out by American appointees to the CPA, the UK retains joint accountability to the UN, and Parliament has a right to know what has been done in our name. Equally important, what are the procedures to prevent this looting of Iraqi people’s money? I hope that my noble friend can reassure us.
My Lords, I begin with pleasure by endorsing the tribute quite rightly paid by the noble Baroness to the maiden speech of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker of Aldringham. I join others in thanking my noble friend Lord Hurd for having introduced this debate today with such a measured and powerful speech. Equally, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay of Cartvale, for the way in which her speech, as so often, emphasised that the decisions over which we differ were no doubt taken, as the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, said, in good faith. The fact remains that the decisions that were taken have had a catastrophic effect on so many features. Grave damage has been done to the stability of the Middle East and, in many ways, of the world. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, pointed out, grave damage has been done to the standing and reputation not just of this country but—perhaps equally important if not more so—of the United States, which will take a very long time to recover.
My noble friend said that there were two aspects for us to consider: first, how we tackle the problems that remain on the agenda; and, secondly, what lessons we can learn from what has happened to ensure that such things will never happen again. I will begin with that, because it is of enormous importance at this time to reflect on the fact that within the next two or three years we are certain to have the arrival of one new Prime Minister and possibly a couple of new Foreign Secretaries. Indeed, we are quite likely to receive the arrival of a second Prime Minister and a further new Foreign Secretary within that time. It is of the utmost practical importance that, when those people arrive in those offices of great distinction and responsibility, they should be supported by the wisdom of our experience from the past.
The relationship in particular between the Prime Minister and each of the three Secretaries of State who hold the great offices of state—the Home Office, the Exchequer and the Foreign Office—is of enormous importance. In this context, there is the need for continuous close collaboration between No. 10 Downing Street and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Some people will recall the rather mischievous comment of Sir Nicholas Henderson when he said that he had noted the customary ill humour of the Foreign Secretary when accompanying the Prime Minister on visits abroad, which is nevertheless nothing to compare to their mood if there is any suggestion of their being left behind. That indicates the nature of the relationship that should exist.
In modern times, that relationship is much more difficult to maintain, because each of the two characters concerned can fly around the world several times a week scarcely seeing each other from one day to the next. Moreover, there is a tendency, certainly under the present Administration, for the appointment of personal envoys to double or overlap the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. One final feature is the extent to which the Prime Minister, if alone on missions of great importance, can receive adulation and adoration that can impair his or her judgment. It is worth recalling that our present Prime Minister was in Washington within 10 days of 9/11 and attended the joint session of both Houses of Congress. Without making a speech, he received two standing ovations. That kind of thing can seriously impair the judgment even of a British Prime Minister.
Certainly, as others have pointed out, it is clear that from the outset of this dismal story wholly insufficient attention was paid to the wisdom, the experience and the expertise available in our Diplomatic Service. Likewise, the intelligence services were treated with less respect than they ought to have been. To make matters worse, since then the resources available to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have been almost continuously reduced. Just as the People’s Republic of China is opening embassies and missions throughout the world and, as was pointed out in the debate the week before last, throughout Africa, we are closing the equivalent places. It is crucial that that kind of attitude towards the specialist services, whose services we need to take advantage of, should no longer be sustained or repeated.
As my noble friend pointed out, the United States has already held many inquiries into what has gone wrong. One that was not very well publicised was conducted by Ambassador Freeman for the purpose of instructing the newly elected Congressmen at a special seminar after the recent elections. We shall not need to have the same thing for new Prime Ministers, but nevertheless the advice is important. Ambassador Freeman pointed out that the world today is not more dangerous than it was in the Cold War, but it is a good deal less orderly, less predictable and more complex. In those circumstances, he pointed out that the defence budget of the United States last year was just over $440 billion, which is more than the defence expenditure of 192 other countries combined. That in itself guarantees nothing. He said:
“What we lack is not military might but political acumen. Our failings are not those of muscle but of the mind”.
The National Security Council, which steered the United States through the hazards of the Cold War, was unable to make the same impact on recent events. The result of that faces us today in Iran.
It is certainly not an easy task to handle that republic. I had a limited experience of it. We had broken off relations with it in 1979, at the same time as the United States, and years of rupture followed thereafter. I was able to bring that detachment to an end first by meeting the Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati at the United Nations and then by bringing him here to London in February 1989. We actually reached the point of re-establishing relations, for them to be shattered less than a fortnight later on Valentine’s Day by the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. That kind of hazard indicates the sensitivity of the problems that we face.
The background today is much less auspicious than it was then, because one could argue that in the name of fighting terrorism—in that broadest of definitions and unhelpful description of the “war against terror”—the United States and perhaps we, to some extent, have actually increased the power of Iran. The removal of the Taliban from Afghanistan diminished the threat from the east to Iran. The removal of Saddam Hussein, Iran’s deadly enemy to the west, had the same effect. The arrival in Baghdad of an Iran-friendly Shia Government for the first time in history was a third factor that has virtually ensured the emergence of Iran as a major power centre in the region, rivalled probably only by Israel. Iran appears all the more hostile as a result of the extravagant populist rhetoric of Mr Ahmadinejad, but I have to say, alas, that some of the remarks that come from Washington in response often have the same effect. The statement by Vice-President Cheney the other day that we are in the “year of Iran” was not a helpful comment on the handling of the future. It was an uncomfortable reminder of the exchanges of rhetoric that preceded the conflict in and attack upon Iraq.
There is a risk that even now, among some of our American friends, military action is no longer regarded as absolutely the last resort, needing the clearest possible justification in accordance with the United Nations charter. The doctrine of pre-emptive strikes and preventive conflict has certainly not been formally abandoned. The distinguished American commentator William Pfaff warned in the New York Review of Books a couple of weeks ago against “world hegemonistic thinking” as being a real “disservice to American interests”.
We must be pretty humble about that as well, because it was once our own habit. There is still a picture at the top of the stairs in the Foreign Office—one of those put up in about 1916—depicting Britannia Bellatrix, which is not the kind of picture that any of us would put on show there today. It took us half a century to learn the lessons of the limitations of empire, starting in South Africa and going on to Suez. I am afraid that the same kind of learning is necessary today.
Finally, where do we go next on the outstanding problems, in particular on Iran? Whether we are addressing the problem of handling Iran or the Israel-Palestine problem, the multilateral approach must be regarded as fundamental. The handling of North Korea, leading to the recent agreement, as far as it goes, points the way. It was anything but reassuring to hear the reaction of the former ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, saying that the agreement,
“sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world”.
I must say, on the contrary, that the constructive involvement of China in particular in those negotiations has had a very positive impact.
The growing importance of China is symbolised by the fact that its current currency reserves, a mountain of gold growing by $200 billion a year, is $1.1 trillion. China’s growing maturity is demonstrated by its support for the United Nations resolution. I summarise the significance of being close to China, as well as Russia, our European partners and the United States, in a phrase that I borrow from my noble friend who seldom, if ever, frequents this House—my noble friend Lord Heseltine. The other day, he said this:
“The growing interdependence of our several self-interests is the glue of future world security”.
It is important to recognise that in respect of every possible partner. That is the way in which to approach the Iran problem. What is needed now, in the words of Dr Ian Davis, the co-executive director of the British American Security Information Council, is,
“smart, tough-minded multilateral diplomacy—of the kind that has just been applied to North Korea”.
It is, he continued,
“not only less risky than military options but also more likely to produce real and long-lasting progress”.
For the United Kingdom, the best way to maximise our influence in that process, as much for the Arab-Israel problem as for the Iran problem, is through our participation in and leadership, as far as we can give it, of the European Union. In that way we are part of the quartet in the Arab-Israel problem and that is the way in which we and other Europeans, alongside the Americans, Russians and Chinese, are all now lined up on the right side of the argument as far as Iran is concerned. That concerted pressure certainly needs to be maintained, but the most useful and vital contribution that the United States can and should make to the conclusion of those negotiations—pace John Bolton—is an unambiguous promise on its part that if Iran returns to compliance with the nuclear rules, it will face no attempt by America to overthrow the regime. A clear assurance of that kind, as part of the process, is one of the components of progress if we are to make it in that respect.
My Lords, this timely debate, for which I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, most gratefully, gives us an opportunity to mourn the loss of so many lives since the invasion of 2003. It is hard to look at large numbers and feel the pain of families. I pay tribute to the bravery of the UK military, the US military, the other military who fought with the coalition forces and, above all, to those Iraqis who have lost their lives in the struggle for peace.
One small example is of just six families. In the little town of Majar al-Kabir, six military policemen were killed in the midsummer of 2003—Sergeant Simon Hamilton-Jewell, Corporals Russ Aston, Paul Long and Simon Miller, and Lance Corporals Tom Keys and Ben Hyde. Let us pay tribute to their loss, their bravery and the Iraqis who helped them in their struggle to survive. Their families are mourning now. We should remember them. I visited Majar al-Kabir a day after the massacre of those fine soldiers. I met with members of the town council. Their sorrow, their sadness, their deep regret was expressed immediately. They were shocked, appalled and dismayed. They told me, and have told me subsequently, that these were outsiders, not townspeople. Indeed, they were not Marsh people, because this small town is in the Marshes.
Those Marsh people fought mightily against Saddam’s invasive destruction of their world. They lost their families, their flocks, their herds, the ground they stood upon and the water they drank and used. Yes, they suffered from chemical and biological weapons used by that vile regime against them. I personally saw and witnessed their pain and suffering after weapons had been used against them.
The Red Caps fought mightily against those who tried to take, and succeeded in taking, their lives. They were there on a mission to bring peace, democracy and freedom to the Marsh people and to the wider Iraqi people. The Red Caps lost their lives. Their killers, who I truly believe were not local men, have not been captured yet; but I am sure that they will be in the near future, and, I sincerely hope, be brought to trial by the Iraqi legal services.
But the Red Caps’ legacy lives on. The British military peace mission has been at least partially successful. Democracy and the rule of law are widely perceived within Iraq as human rights that must be fulfilled. A recent survey in the Marshes gave the full data on this. Inevitably at the moment, the most important thing is the feeling of safety: 80 per cent; next, the availability of a health service: 74 per cent; the chance of education: 77 per cent; harmony between people of different religions: 72 per cent; and unemployment: 85 per cent. In Iraq, among the current major concerns and the perception of important events, by a huge majority the fall of Saddam Hussein is seen as an absolutely key event and a positive one. More than half of the respondents are against the presence of coalition troops in Iraq. The Prime Minister’s Statement yesterday was therefore timely and proper.
However, on the larger question of whether it is proper to give democracy to the people of Iraq or in the region, the argument that these people are not like us and that they do not deserve or want democracy falls flat when you ask the people themselves. Seventy per cent believe that democracy is fully in line with the Iraqi mentality, and two-thirds believe that political parties should be based on political doctrines and not on religious criteria. Indeed, when you look at the situation of the Marsh people under the previous regime in the wider Iraq, that must be so. The situation today, with some schools, some health and some water, can be rolled out all over Iraq. Despite the loss of lives, the legacy lives on.
I have given two statements to the criminal tribunal on the genocide against the Marsh people. I am about to offer a third and I hope to give evidence in court. Surely that is the reason that we invaded Iraq in the first place. It was to save the people—several groups of people in Halabja, the Marshes and elsewhere—against genocide. How can we stand here and talk about Darfur and Rwanda and not recognise genocide when we see it? How can we not have the guts to go in and do something about it? I shall be visiting Halabja shortly.
Of course, it is not easy to recreate a civilisation, particularly one that has been under such a horrific and awful rule for many years. Building democracy, as we know from enlarging the European Union, is a slow and difficult task. Let us recognise that rebuilding a state in our terms means the adoption and implementation of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech and the freedom to worship, travel and work. Our European Union, UK and global values, filtered and enhanced through the prism of internationally ratified UN conventions that celebrate our common humanity, tell us this. We cannot get away from that and say that it is acceptable for a civilisation to have a way of life in which women are degraded, there is no freedom of speech and there is sometimes genocide but that it is different for us and that we deserve democracy. The UN conventions do not allow us to do that, and they have been signed and ratified by all the member states of the UN globally and implemented continuously, although erratically.
Of course, the key issue at the moment for all Iraqis is security, but there are ways of gaining security and stability in Iraq. Baghdad is the key. As the capital city and emblem of Iraq, it is the principal target of the insurgents, as well as of hostile neighbouring states. I believe that it has therefore been imperative for the US to strengthen its troop numbers now in what I hope will be the very short term. I pay tribute here to General Corelli and General Petraeus and to the others whom I have seen working on the ground for the peace and safety of the Iraqi people, for that is their aim.
Once stability has been achieved, the rapid scaling-down below current levels must be the way forward. Why is that? It is because, despite all they have been through, the Iraqi people place maximum trust in their own police and army. Despite the previous bad experiences under the former regime, these are the key institutions in their society that they believe will, in time, protect them in the long term. We have the opportunity to help by strengthening the training and assisting with full equipment for these forces in the short, medium and long term. Surely that is an essential matter which will also be very popular with the Iraqi people.
Continuous polling over the whole of Iraq shows that most Iraqis, sometimes by an overwhelming majority, such as the one that I quoted for the Marsh people, believe that life is preferable now compared with that under the previous regime. To reinforce that reality, the local and national justice systems need immense and dedicated work so that the Iraqi people have access to justice with regard to former and present crimes. The training of judges and magistrates is therefore another focal point for us. This training should take place in-country rather than out-of-country; the latter has proved less effective because those who are trained do not pass on the knowledge when they return home.
As I have just said, alongside security, the greatest issue for the Iraqi people is the provision of basic services. Here, grass-roots level initiatives must surely be the way forward—not the massive projects that are easy to implement in stable western societies but, rather, the spread of small-scale efforts through the local elements of civil society. I refer, in particular, to the NGOs, trades unions, women’s groups, youth groups and so on. Basic-need provision is the key: health, education and water. Capacity-building and institution-building on a small scale everywhere throughout Iraq is possible today. It gives people a framework for their lives and enables them to cope with their difficulties more effectively. Peace education, as promoted by UNESCO, and conflict-resolution studies will also help.
We should take advantage of the peaceful zones of Iraq to proactively encourage inward investment and trading in the region and internationally, but perhaps particularly in northern Iraq, where 16 years of democracy have given ample opportunity for free trade.
What about interfaith initiatives? The insurgents in Iraq have succeeded to some extent in creating deep divisions between the different faiths. Why do we not put forward interfaith initiatives far more powerfully? Internationally respected academic, cultural and religious bodies could help with a view to analysing in a shared way the various strands that are driving interfaith hostility in Iraq and in the region.
The involvement of the international community should be considerably stronger. I recently saw Prime Minister Maliki, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh and the Deputy President in Baghdad. These, our fellow politicians, are fighting for the common human values on which we build our European and global peace. They are fighting against international and domestic terrorists, who seek to destroy the peace both here and everywhere. Do not let us see Iraq in isolation, just as one country; it is a piece of the puzzle in the region and internationally. The terrorists are all the same: they are against civilisation. This is no fight of civilisation against civilisation; it is a fight of barbarians against civilisation. Iraq is at the heart of that.
My Lords, I join others in welcoming the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker of Aldringham, to the House, and congratulating him on an impressive and moving maiden speech. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, for initiating this debate, which is no less necessary today following yesterday’s welcome Statement by the Prime Minister. I shall focus on two issues: on the case for an inquiry or review and, briefly, on the broader political context for future policy in Iraq.
On the case for a review, my starting point is the need to learn the lessons from any major event, whether of domestic or foreign policy. I cite two very different examples from my own time at the Foreign Office. First, the inquiries into the response to the Asian tsunami—a matter of immense public interest and great tragedy—one internal and one by the National Audit Office, were invaluable in changing policies and procedures in the FCO, Whitehall and internationally. Secondly, in the past 18 months or so of my previous job at the Foreign Office, at a time of incipient tension with Argentina, the lessons drawn from the Franks inquiry on the prelude to the conflict in the Falklands were constantly in my mind and of use.
It therefore seems sensible and desirable that there should be some way of learning the lessons of the Iraq war—the lead-up to it, the conflict itself and its aftermath—with a view, I repeat, to ensuring that the lessons learnt are available to and used by future generations of policy-makers, whether Ministers or civil servants. I faltered in that opinion for a moment when I heard the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, say he thought that most of the lessons were already learnt. I still believe, however, that there is a case for learning the lessons. The issue is therefore what the scope, form and timing of any such review might be. I have been reflecting on those aspects of policy and practice on Iraq from which it seems that future policy-makers might draw lessons.
There are international and domestic angles. The international angles include, as other noble Lords have mentioned, the relationship with the United States. How do you translate access, which was unprecedented in the past few years, into influence, which was significant in some areas, such as the role of the United Nations and even in some aspects of preparing for the aftermath of conflict, but not in others, such as the key importance of US engagement in the Middle East, the mistakes of de-Ba’athification and disbanding the army after the war? What is the right stance vis-à-vis the United States? There are times when a robust approach with our closest ally is necessary, uncomfortable though that can be, as I know myself.
Noble Lords have not mentioned the European Union. Could the EU have played a more effective role if not split down the middle? Was the British stance, between the US and the EU, right? What lessons are there for the development of the EU’s foreign and security policy? The role of the UN is crucial, and there are lessons to be learnt there, in particular for the Security Council. Unanimous agreement on UNSCR 1441 in the autumn of 2002 was a huge achievement, as was the negotiation of UNSCR 502 after the invasion of the Falklands. They are both tributes to the continuing strength of our diplomatic efforts in the United Nations over the years. But what lessons do we learn from the failure to reach agreement on a second resolution in March 2003? Is the importance of operating within a multilateral framework so great that UN Security Council agreement should be a condition for such action in the future?
The focus should be wider than just the Security Council. We should look also at the importance of international support for reconstruction and development during and after conflict; and we should compare Afghanistan, fiendishly difficult but operating within a UN and NATO framework, to Iraq, at least until 2004. More generally, how do you move from crisis, through conflict, to post-conflict reconstruction, ensuring proper preparation at each stage? What lessons are there from Iraq, drawing also on Afghanistan and the Balkans? They are all matters which will shortly be the subject of a book by the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, who is not in his seat today.
There is also a domestic angle. Is Whitehall joined up enough on conflict issues? How do you prepare for the aftermath of a conflict you are trying to avoid through diplomacy? I stress that the avoidance of conflict was indeed the aim of diplomacy in the second half of 2002 and the beginning of 2003. Changes have been made in Whitehall as a result of the Iraq conflict. Are they enough? There are of course other domestic angles: the use of intelligence in policy-making and its handling and testing, and the public use of intelligence when demand for transparency is constantly growing. These are hugely difficult issues.
The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, dwelt on ministerial co-ordination and the role of Cabinet government. There are issues surrounding military preparations and, as always, resources. There are issues around diplomacy. I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I move slightly up the curve from question to answer and express the hope that any review will agree with the importance of professional diplomats understanding local cultures and political systems, being fluent in their languages and being listened to, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, mentioned. I hope the Minister will forgive, and perhaps agree with, me when I say that further cuts in this resource would be extraordinarily short-sighted in today’s uncertain world. Finally, we need clarity about the role of Parliament before any future conflict. I am not sure that we yet have it.
That is a big agenda, and not all of it may be suitable for a review. Some of it has already been covered. I do not myself see a strong case for looking again at the use of intelligence in the light of the review by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, except, perhaps, to update it in the light of evidence subsequently discovered. I look forward to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, on that later in this debate.
It is a lot of ground to cover. How might that best be done? A full public inquiry would be long, complex and expensive. A Franks-type inquiry, with privy counsellors sitting in private, would be shorter and more focused, and it worked well 25 years ago, but would it be acceptable in an age that demands transparency? Is there perhaps a case for a hybrid: some independent review of privy counsellors with the ability to hear evidence in public and in private, and with a mandate to report quite quickly? I do not see huge advantage in a long, drawn-out review. Furthermore, the lessons which need to be learnt must be learnt quickly.
On timing, I am a little less clear than the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, about starting down this road straightaway, at a time when we are at a delicate stage in the process of troop withdrawal. There is a link between the substance of any review and the timing. For a review to look at relations with the existing Iraqi Government—or the one over the past year or so—would be a rather delicate exercise at present. I noted what the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, said about a review getting under way, perhaps by the end of the year.
Before I finish, I shall comment briefly on the broader policy content of Iraq for the future. I agree with the view of other noble Lords and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, on the need for Iraq to be seen in a regional context. It is essential to engage Iran and Syria in the search for a stable Iraq. I know that it is not easy to combine that with the necessary policy of persuading both countries to cease sponsoring terrorists, persuading Syria to disengage from Lebanon and continuing to work to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. However, with the right kind of diplomacy, it is not impossible. I see a case for a regional conference to be held at some point, under the auspices of the United Nations, which would bring in those countries and the Gulf states and would focus on the economic and political future of Iraq in the context of a broader regional approach. That is not an impossible prospect, but it is more likely to succeed if it is accompanied by a serious attempt to make progress on Israel and Palestine and to continue to persuade the Americans that that must be their priority, too, because it is crucially in their interest. Progress can be made only if there is a viable Palestinian Authority as well as an Israeli Government, if they talk to each other and if the international community talks to them both. That must mean talking to the national unity Government, when established, and finding some way of talking to people other than Mahmoud Abbas.
Pensions: Occupational Schemes
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made earlier today by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in another place. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on yesterday’s judgment on the Government’s response to the ombudsman’s report concerning the security of final salary occupational pension schemes. Given the importance of this issue to many honourable Members, I want today to inform the House on the position we have reached in the light of this ruling and the decision last month of the European Court of Justice on the implementation of the insolvency directive.
“The High Court made five rulings in yesterday’s judgment. I will take each in turn. The court’s first ruling was that the ombudsman was entitled on the evidence available to her to reach the conclusion that official information published on the minimum funding requirement for pension schemes was inaccurate and potentially misleading and therefore amounted to maladministration. The court particularly criticised the then Government’s guide to the Pensions Act 1995, which was published in 1996. This, it concluded, gave the clear impression that following enactment of the new law, scheme members could be reassured that their pensions were safe whatever happened.
“The Government had, in good faith and acting on proper advice, taken a different view from that of the ombudsman, on the basis that the leaflets concerned were not a full statement of the law and were for general guidance only. However, we now need to study the court’s ruling on this matter very carefully. In particular, we need to consider the possible implications across government of the court’s significant proposition—on which this particular ruling was based—that findings of fact made by the ombudsman are binding, unless they are flawed, irrational or peripheral or there is fresh evidence.
“The court’s second ruling related to the important issue of causation. The ombudsman found that maladministration was a significant contributory factor in the creation of the financial losses suffered by individuals. She went on to argue that everyone who between 1997 and 2004 suffered losses on the winding up of their pension scheme was the victim of injustice because of maladministration. The Government argued that this was not well founded. The court found in favour of the Government on this point, describing this aspect of the ombudsman’s report as “logically flawed and unreasonable”.
“The court’s third ruling rejected the ombudsman’s finding that the Government were guilty of maladministration when they made changes to the pension scheme funding rules in 2002. The court decided that the ombudsman’s finding was not logically sound.
“In its fourth ruling, the court dismissed the claim that the Government’s refusal fully to restore the pension entitlements of all affected scheme members was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
“The court’s fifth and final ruling concluded that I should reconsider the ombudsman’s recommendation that the Government should consider making arrangements to restore fully the pension losses of the people concerned when their employers became insolvent.
“In a clear sign of the complexity and importance of these matters, both sides have sought and been granted permission to appeal. We have not yet decided the precise grounds for such an appeal. It is absolutely right and proper that we take the time to study this judgment and consider its implications in detail.
“The judgment of the European Court of Justice in January on the implementation of the insolvency directive has an important bearing on the issue of financial redress for those who have lost some or all of their pension entitlement. The decision of the European Court of Justice effectively requires the Government to reconsider whether the present arrangements offer sufficient protection for people’s pensions when their employer becomes insolvent. The European Court of Justice has ruled that the system of protection which was in place before 2004 did not comply with the directive, even taking account of the subsequent introduction of the financial assistance scheme, albeit before its 2006 extension. We are therefore already reviewing the financial assistance scheme with this finding in mind. It is now for the High Court to be asked to decide whether damages for breach of the directive should be paid, taking account of the steer apparently given by the European Court of Justice that damages may not be payable.
“The Government have already acted to provide substantial financial assistance to people who lost pension rights when their employers became insolvent. The financial assistance scheme, supported by £2.3 billion of public money, has been set up precisely for this purpose. Throughout, we have always sought to ensure that those who have suffered the most should receive financial assistance to mitigate their loss. At the same time, we have sought to strike a balance with the interests of taxpayers, who can not be asked to accept responsibility for effectively underwriting the total value of pension savings. In considering the right way forward, we are always prepared to consider practical proposals from all sides of the House.
“I can confirm that, so as not to add to their financial difficulty, we will meet the costs of the applicants in this case so far, together with any costs associated with our appeal.
“People who have lost their pension rights in these circumstances have suffered a great deal. My aim will be to return to the House with our conclusions and our proposals for how we should proceed before the conclusion of proceedings on the Pensions Bill”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, rather than being, as I usually am, grateful to the Minister for repeating a Statement, I am particularly pleased that today’s speakers have allowed us to break into their important debate on Iraq to take a gruesome Statement. Legal processes usually take a long time, but in this case they have been unusually quick. Immediately I heard the result of the judgment of the European Court of Justice, I put down a topical Question. However, by the time it would have been answered, it would have become sub judice, so it was turned down. We now have the opportunity to discuss the matter more fully.
The case arose from the fact that four people were among thousands who lost some of, or their entire, pension when their schemes collapsed. I am very pleased that the Statement set out the judgment so clearly. I congratulate the Government on that because they have not had much time to do it. The court’s first ruling, which is, I suspect, the one that most concerns the Government, was that findings of fact made by the ombudsman are binding. It appears to have agreed with her that the finding of maladministration was well founded and therefore binding. I do not know whether this is a new point of law, but if it is, I am sure that it would be appropriate to appeal. Whatever the result of that appeal, the Government have a moral duty to act in this matter. I am glad that the Government will pay the court fees of the applicants throughout this long drawn out process.
However, we should not forget the background to all this. When this Government came to power, they inherited a golden pensions legacy. The previous Government encouraged people to join their firm’s pensions schemes; at that time, it was thought to be the right thing to do. The stock market was healthy, many pension schemes had cash surpluses and the Inland Revenue insisted that firms took pension holidays. Nobody, especially the then Opposition, had any idea that many pension schemes would go belly-up. That was the scenario in 1997, when this Government came into office. What did the Chancellor do? In his first Budget, he started to abolish advance corporation tax, removing it entirely from pension schemes. That meant an extra £5 billion pounds a year to the Treasury, but it was a double whammy for pension schemes. Not only did they have less money to reinvest but they saw the FTSE drop and stay in the doldrums year after year. More and more schemes went into deficit. Still leaflets appeared encouraging employees to join their firms’ pension schemes. No wonder the Parliamentary Ombudsman found them guilty of maladministration and recommended compensation. As we all know, the Government turned down that report, saying that it would be too expensive to implement such a scheme.
It is ironic that these pension crises come in the middle of a Pensions Bill. In the previous one, now the 2004 Act, the Government had to do a U-turn after pressure from their Back-Benchers in another place to set up the financial assistance scheme to give a limited pension to a limited number of people who lost out when their employer became insolvent, but only from the date of the announcement until the introduction of the Pension Protection Fund. So far the FAS has resulted, as I understand it, in payment of only £3 million to 871 qualifying members. Perhaps the noble Lord will update me on that. It is also interesting to note that so far the scheme has cost £7 million.
It seems to me that, by setting up the FAS, the Government have sold the pass. Since they accepted the need for it then, what is the reason for not accepting the result of the High Court judgment now? They talk about cost, as they did then, but they talk about the total amount and not the amount they believe will need to be paid out every year. How much could that be? I am sure the Minister cannot answer that, but it is worth asking. I remind the noble Lord that this year’s uprating order results in a bill of an extra £3.5 billion, so money can be found if the need for it is there.
I do not ask for a blank cheque. It would be irresponsible for the Official Opposition party to argue for that, and it would be equally irresponsible for the Government to accept it, but some money can be found. It can be found from the taxpayer, it can be found partly from the unclaimed assets of insurance companies, and it can be found by rolling the financial assistance scheme and the Pension Protection Fund into a single entity. The scheme is not yet in deficit; is it not time that we stopped forcing people to buy an annuity at 75?
When was the last time the DWP encouraged people to join their firms’ pension schemes? Not only do we have a time bomb on our hands, we might well have a new one looming. The Government have accepted the bones of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Turner. That will result in setting up a new default pension scheme for people who do not join their firm’s own scheme, and preparations for it are in this year’s Pensions Bill. My noble friend Lady Noakes and I will have a lot more to say about that when the time comes.
I am more than disappointed at this situation. The dogmatic stance of the Government does nothing for the thousands of people affected, some of whom are suffering from terminal illness. They cannot afford to wait. They need the Government of the day to show leadership. Resolving this issue is critical in restoring confidence in the pensions system.
My Lords, in breaking into the Iraq debate, I wonder how many people heard, as I did, the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, say on the “Today” programme this morning that there are times when Parliament should be angry. If ever there were people in this country who are entitled to be really angry, it is the 120,000 robbed pensioners guided by the indefatigable Ros Altmann. If ever there was a time when both Houses of Parliament should be angry, it is here and now. The way the Government have treated these decent, hard-working people is shameful beyond belief. The Government have twisted and turned. They have ignored the ombudsman, the House of Commons Select Committee, with a Labour majority, and the European Court of Justice. Can the Minister not see that only now, when a High Court judge says the Secretary of State's position is one that,
“no reasonable Secretary of State could accept”,
when the Government have their back pressed right against the wall, when on this issue they are staring defeat in the face as they did once before—they are again staring defeat in the face in the Commons and the Lords—are the Government beginning to climb down? What a way to run the country.
What exactly do the Government mean by saying that they will take time to “consider” the implications of the judgment but—and obviously we believe that this is the start of a climbdown—will,
“return to the House with our conclusions and our proposals before the conclusion of proceedings on the Pensions Bill”?
Does that mean 10 minutes before Royal Assent or in good time so that in another place and here, when Peers and MPs have had the chance to consider the Government’s proposals seriously, if we are not happy we can table amendments to the Pensions Bill and vote on them to ensure justice? The timing of the Government’s proposals is crucial.
I have asked this question several times before, but it is equally relevant. Will the Minister update us on the latest figures for how much money has been paid out by the FAS and to how many people? The largest figures I saw were those last month; they suggested that about £2.35 million net had been paid to 871 people, which is less than £2,700 each—and, as it happens, less than the cost of running John Prescott’s office for a year. What an insult that is to these hard-working, robbed pensioners.
Does the noble Lord accept that, as we argued from these Benches during the passage of the Pensions Bill, it makes a lot more sense, as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, mentioned, to run the operation of the Pension Protection Fund and the financial assistance scheme together? Specifically, does he agree with these Benches that, as we proposed in our manifesto at the last election—indeed, I spoke with the members of the Pensions Action Group outside this House during the election campaign—at the very least these people are entitled to the same benefits as under the Pension Protection Fund? Furthermore, does he agree with me that the recent interest of the Conservative Opposition in this would be a great deal more convincing if it said what it was in favour of and what money it was prepared to commit to this, rather than, frankly, making evasive remarks about orphan assets? This is one issue on which David Cameron’s talk about all sorts of ideas while making no commitments really will not wash.
Those are our most serious concerns. I should leave the Government and the Minister in absolutely no doubt at our outrage at how these people have been treated and our utter commitment to get them justice through Parliament if proper proposals are not brought forward in very good time.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, says that the Government have a moral duty to act. Of course they have acted already with the financial assistance scheme— £2.3 billion worth of taxpayers’ money is to be applied to that effect.
I was sure that the Lord would not be able to resist returning to ACT and payable tax credits, but let me place clearly on the record what happened. The change in the treatment of tax credits was introduced at the same time as reductions in the rates of corporation tax. The main rate of corporation tax was reduced from 33 per cent to 31 per cent in 1997 and has subsequently been reduced to 30 per cent, the lowest rate in the history of the tax. The small companies’ rate has followed a similar pattern.
The Pensions Institute estimated that the so-called £5 billion a year figure was wildly overestimated and did not take account of the effects of the reductions in corporation tax—what that would mean for investment and what that would mean for more profitable companies. The real reasons why occupational and final salary schemes have run into difficulty is to do with factors such as increasing longevity, tumbling equity markets, which happened not only in the UK but also across the world, and a period when unrealistic returns from equity markets were taken into account. Now a more sober estimate is being made. There is also the impact of falling interest rates. Let us look at the impact of falling interest rates. Until mid-1997, gilts yielded 3.5 per cent to 4 per cent; by the end of 1998 that yield had fallen to 2 per cent, which means, other things being equal, that over two years the assets needed to cover liabilities could have increased by about 50 per cent. Lower interest rates had a real impact. That was nothing to do with a reduction in tax credits.
The noble Lords, Lord Skelmersdale and Lord Oakeshott, asked for an update on the financial assistance scheme. Before I give the numbers, perhaps I should reiterate that there have been discussions and endeavours to simplify the application process. We have been in discussion with the pension scheme trustees and held meetings with more than 75 per cent of the schemes with members potentially eligible for initial payments, to ensure that they understand what information is required and when. The current position is that we estimate that 9,000 such people have already reached the age of 65 and are therefore eligible for payments under the scheme, but that, based on operational data, only 1,900 are in schemes where the trustees have applied for payment. We can pay out only when the trustees have done their bit and made contact. We seek to encourage them to do so more effectively.
We have paid out more than £3 million to 950 people. That figure is made up of 804 initial payments and 146 annual payments, which are available only when the schemes have completed winding up. A further 80 members will be paid as soon as they confirm their personal details and an additional 203 members have been assessed and will be eligible for the FAS when they are 65.
My Lords, I do not have that information readily to hand, but I will write to the noble Lord to confirm the position.
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said that he is not in favour of a blank cheque but that we need to do something and that taxpayers’ money should be part of the solution. On that point, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, would say how much taxpayers’ money the Conservative Party believes should now be applied to address the issue. It is all very well urging us to do things, but how much taxpayers’ money does the noble Lord propose spending?
My Lords, I look forward to that.
The noble Lord also mentioned unclaimed assets. I was a bit unclear whether he was referring to unclaimed pension assets, the issue that his leader raised in another place. There is no such thing as unclaimed pension assets in the way that there are unclaimed bank assets, because pension schemes are run mutually, so assets belong to all members not the individual. That is not the same as unclaimed bank assets.
Both noble Lords talked about rolling together the FAS and the Pension Protection Fund. That was considered. There are two components. It is suggested that the administration of the financial assistance scheme should be undertaken by the PPF. We have looked at that, but believe that the right way to administer the scheme is as it currently is. The Pension Service is well experienced in dealing with a series of pension payments, which is effectively what flows from the FAS. That is quite different from the operation of the Pension Protection Fund, which is a residual collective scheme.
As for merging the assets of the two with current funds in which winding-up has commenced, in many such cases either the winding-up has been completed or, where it has not, schemes are significantly down the track of entering into contractual arrangements to provide annuities. It would be expensive to unpick that. Even if that were not the case, to merge the fund with the Pension Protection Fund would have all sorts of implications for allocation between groups of people and a potential impact on the levy that other schemes are asked to pay.
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said that we were adopting a dogmatic stance in our response. Demonstrably, that is not the case. The tenor of the Statement is clear: we need to give serious and detailed consideration to this judgment and we have undertaken to come back as soon as we can once that deliberation has ceased. The noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, presses me on whether that will happen in time to amend any pension legislation. In my short time in the House, I have never seen any process that has stopped Liberal Democrat or Conservative Members tabling amendments to legislation. Clearly, the intent is to take considered input from across the House, provided that that input is practical. It is all very well to assert things, but the provision needs to work in practice. That is the challenge that the Government face.
I hope that I have dealt with each of the points that noble Lords have raised but, if not, I am happy to have another go.
My Lords, I apologise for not being present for the reading of the Statement; I have read it and was able to hear the contributions from noble Lords opposite.
This probably goes back to 1994-95. I led for the opposition team on the Bill. We were well aware that the minimum funding requirement was only meant to achieve a 50:50 probability of full funding. That was exactly why I and other colleagues moved for something called the central discontinuance fund. I am sad to say that that was rejected by the Government of the day, but it was then reintroduced by us as the Pension Protection Fund precisely to lay off that risk. If we do not have a central discontinuance fund, does my noble friend agree that we and the department are left with a real issue of moral hazard? What seems to be suggested is that on the basis of some admittedly incomplete DWP/DSS pamphlets produced by both Governments, the Government have a moral obligation financially to underwrite and guarantee the whole of the £900 billion private pension industry.
Since 1994-95, no employer truly believed that, because they did their best to fund up to MFR standards. Clearly, no pension trustees believed that assertion, because they did their best to fund up to MFR standards. I find it hard to believe the notion that large swathes of the British population were misled on the basis of a couple of DWP/DSS leaflets into believing that there was a guarantee of the £900 billion when two of the three players—employers and trustees—acted otherwise. So the Government are right to argue that the right response was the Pension Protection Fund and to introduce the FAS to help those who have done the right thing but for whom it was not reasonable to have a retrospective levy from the industry.
Finally, given the FAS, am I not right in thinking that the problem has not been the Government's willingness to pay or fund, because the Chancellor of the Exchequer has provided what I hope are adequate resources but—this was my problem in handling the issue—incomplete, inadequate or, in the jargon, dirty data? The real problem in trying to establish rights was that the data held by the trustees and companies were insufficient, incomplete and inadequate to make possible payments of public money for which we had to have an audit trail. I hope that the problem is well on the way to being cleared up, that the data are being collected, and that we can expect a proper and effective FAS that deals with precisely the problem of moral hazard which the Government of the day rejected in 1994-95 and which the Government should not accept across the board.
My Lords, as ever, my noble friend makes some very telling points and is extremely knowledgeable about pensions and many other things. I certainly agree that the concept that the Government should stand behind, underwrite and guarantee every private pension provision in the country is absurd. No political party would propose that. Indeed, it would not be sensible to do so.
On the financial assistance scheme, the problem is not that funding has not been allocated to it but that there are practical problems in collecting the data, which is why there has been engagement with trustees to try to improve that process. I take this opportunity to revert to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott. He talked about 120,000 robbed pensioners, as if the Government had somehow done this. I remind him, however, that many of those people are not at pension age. Indeed, many of them are a long, long way from pension age.
My Lords, the Statement repeated by the Minister said that the Government were,
“always prepared to consider practical proposals from all sides of the House”.
However, the plain fact is that they have not been prepared to consider any proposals whatever to deal with these issues. They have simply been in denial ever since the ombudsman’s first response, and have obdurately said that they will simply not deal with the issue.
We have consistently advocated the use of financial assets for which there may be no other use in the system. We originally advocated the use of unclaimed bank accounts, which are very similar to orphaned pension assets because they belong to someone, and if someone can establish ownership, they remain the property of that individual. However, there is the question of how you use the benefit of those assets while they remain unclaimed. The Chancellor has, of course, got his hands on those and spent them many times over already, so that may no longer be a practical proposition, although if the Minister is prepared to say that it is, I am sure that we will all want to discuss it with him.
We have also proposed researching the way in which orphaned pension assets could be used. Both these proposals are practical, but neither has resulted in any serious engagement on the part of the Government, so are we to believe that they will engage with us now on these issues? We believe that these issues should be looked at in the whole scheme of how the undeniable losses to these unfortunate pensioners should be dealt with. Today’s Statement is another obdurate statement. Does the Minister not feel an acute sense of shame at having to stand at the Dispatch Box and, instead of saying that the Government’s immediate response is to deal with the issue or to engage in practical discussions about how it can be dealt with, stating that their only response is to appeal the argument? That is a shaming statement for any Minister to have to make.
My Lords, let me start by addressing the latter point. I made it clear in repeating the Statement, as did my right honourable friend in another place, that we need to understand fully and properly the import of the judgment that has come down. It is a few hours old, and we quite properly need time to ensure that we examine all the issues and draw conclusions. It is entirely unreasonable for the noble Baroness to press us to commit to detailed action literally within a few hours of that judgment being delivered.
Are we prepared to engage? Yes, of course we are. That was made clear in the Statement. The noble Baroness uses the term “orphaned pension assets”. I am not quite sure what she means by that, but if she would like to send us something on them, we would be very happy to look at it. It is not true to say that the Chancellor has snaffled other unclaimed assets. The initial record searches by banks and building societies suggest that several hundred million pounds may lie unclaimed. There may be an annual flow in the region of tens of millions of pounds from that source, but this is not a reliable income stream on which to make promises of pension compensation. It should also be remembered that, before any use of that money can be made, the banks have quite properly said that they would put a publicity campaign into effect. Indeed, they have committed themselves to doing so. It remains to be seen whether more claims are made as a result of that campaign. Both factors could substantially reduce the amounts that are available. The Commission on Unclaimed Assets is an independent body that was set up by the Scarman Trust to look at how the money should be used, but I repeat that we will duly consider any practical issues that the noble Baroness and her party wish to put forward.
My Lords, I find it somewhat ironic that Members opposite are so keen to criticise the Government. We should be clear that, before this Government acted, there was no protection for occupational pensions when companies were declared insolvent. Somehow that seems to have been brushed aside as being of no consequence whatever. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, could not resist repeating the hoary old myth of the advanced corporation tax and that convenient figure of £5 billion. The doubtful veracity of that was well and truly nailed by the Minister. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, for putting the size of the problem into perspective—again, something that the Opposition seem unable to grasp.
Some of the people who caused the insolvencies of these companies were frequently protected from the financial consequences of their actions, while the people who dedicated their working lives to the company and who created the wealth, believing that part of their reward was a decent pension, have become the innocent victims. I hope the Minister agrees that the creation of the financial assistance scheme, with a not insignificant sum of £2.3 billion of public money to buttress it, coupled with the pension protection fund, is an important step forward. No one pretends that these are necessarily perfect solutions; these are very complex issues.
I welcome the Statement on a complex set of rulings given by the High Court on a very complex subject. The Government are absolutely right to pause and evaluate the situation before returning to the House. I share the hope that they will take the decisions of the High Court into account and come back to us with their conclusions and proposals on how we should proceed. I do not think that we on this side of the House should be prepared to take any lessons from Members on the other side of the House on managing pensions, given the previous actions of Tory Governments.
My Lords, I find it impossible to disagree with the thrust of my noble friend’s comments. He is absolutely right; this Government have already acted by committing £2.3 billion of taxpayers’ money, which is no small sum, over an extended period. He is absolutely right that no previous Government have addressed the issue in this way. I repeat again my question to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and I look forward to his detailed reply so that I can understand exactly how much the Conservative Party will use in extra taxpayer resources to address this issue.
My Lords, my short time in the House has taught me that questions can be posed in a variety of ways. Some are short, others are slightly longer, and Members of the House are very experienced at making their points by way of questions or otherwise. That seems to be a very good practice.
My Lords, I refer briefly to the use of language in the Statement. It says in two places,
“when their employers became insolvent”.
I think the Minister will agree that that is not necessarily a trigger for the loss of pension rights, because if the pension scheme, particularly the defined benefit pension scheme, has been set up correctly, the assets of the scheme, which belong to the members, are under the legal and incorporated control of the trustees. There are many companies that have ceased to trade for reasons good and bad. In a global economy that moves at the pace that this economy moves, some of the reasons are quite understandable. For quite a number of years, I was a director of a company in which a substantial percentage of the company’s shares were held by a pension scheme that was entrusted with the assets of the members, and the company concerned had not traded for years. None of those pensioners lost any of their accumulated rights for the past service that they had with the company. I make that point only because this is a very complicated situation. The one thing that seems to be completely wrong is to turn it into a rhetorical, political debate.
Yes, my Lords, it is complicated. I had hoped that we could have consensus on the matter, but I have to respond to the points that are put to me. The noble Viscount says that this is not just a matter of employers becoming insolvent, which is right. The financial assistance scheme, as I understand it, kicks in in circumstances where the scheme itself is being wound up or there is commencement of winding up and the employer becomes insolvent. If the scheme is fully funded, there is no reason why it should not continue in existence. If I am wrong on any of that, I will certainly write to the noble Viscount.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, for introducing this extremely important debate on Iraq. That Iraq is in a total mess needs no repetition from me. No one in that country feels safe. Militias and armed gangs roam the streets, and schools and universities function only intermittently. Shias and Sunnis, who despite their differences had lived together for centuries, fear and hate each other, and the entire social fabric is unravelling. Since the war on Iraq 100,000 civilians have died, five times as many have been badly wounded, 1.8 million have been internally displaced, and about 200,000—most of whom are professionals—have left the country. No less important is that corruption is rampant and people are developing habits of doing business relating to government which will last a long time and will leave a very dangerous legacy. Even after so many years, the coalition is completely clueless. Increasingly, we are losing faith in Prime Minister Maliki and we are trying to set up people who might be able to replace him one day who do not have much weight in the country and are unlikely to deliver. The question I want to address is: how did we end up creating a Hobbesian state of nature?
It is important to know what mistakes are made—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd—but it is more important to know what lessons we can learn. Here again we need to ask ourselves what kinds of lessons we want to learn. We do not want to learn simply about how decisions on going to war were taken. We need to learn even more important lessons about limits of power; lessons about the goals of our foreign policy in this increasingly changing and volatile world; and lessons about our relations with the United States, our ability to shape the events of the world and what it means to be a junior partner without being a poodle. Equally importantly from my point of view, the war on Iraq has damaged not only that country but our own democracy. We should ask ourselves: how is it possible for us to avoid being bounced into another misconceived adventure in future?
My suggestion is that, rather than simply thinking in terms of an inquiry, we should think in terms of a national commission to explore the kinds of issues that I have raised about the nature of our democracy, democratic control on war-making, our foreign policy goals and our place in the world at large. We should debate these issues publicly; it is not just a matter of a small committee of inquiry.
It is also very striking that those who have been associated with the war are now beginning to look for a moral fig-leaf which can allow honourable men to assuage their troubled consciences, and I am struck by the arguments being advanced. We are told that Saddam Hussein was evil; and should we not be glad that he is gone? My answer to that is that you do not reply to one evil by doing another which is just as evil. Even more importantly, with all the tyranny imposed by Saddam Hussein, we are in the process of not merely dismantling the state but of destroying the bonds of social cohesion which have existed between different communities.
We were also told that, given the intelligence at the time about weapons of mass destruction, war was the only course of action and that no honourable person could have voted differently. I am not persuaded by this argument. The kind of intelligence that was available and the arguments that were made were put forward to many of us, and several of us on these Benches and elsewhere strongly opposed the war. I think that the intelligence was ambiguous, as was pointed out by our own people and the CIA. It was also widely known that it came from tainted sources and therefore needed to be scrutinised more carefully. Since the United States was determined to go to war under one pretext or another, we should have been more sceptical of the kind of intelligence proposed to us. Hans Blix was in Iraq and we should have allowed him to complete his mission and tell us conclusively one way or the other. We did not do that.
Those who want to assuage their conscience also tell us that mistakes were made and that it is only human to make mistakes. My answer to that is that our mistakes follow a pattern. They are not isolated mistakes arising out of human fallibility. They reflect, as the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, rightly pointed out, a particular mindset—a mood of arrogance—and a simple and rather foolish assumption that once Saddam was toppled, people would embrace us most enthusiastically and would welcome us for going in.
We should have known that no tyranny functions like that. It is a system and a tyrant is always supported by small tyrants in different walks of life. Therefore, chopping off his head would not remove the system. We were also so determined to go to war that we did not plan carefully and even tended to suppress critical reports that were coming to us from all directions. Since we went to war without the support of the United Nations, we denied ourselves access to the wealth and experience of various United Nations agencies and networks.
What are the important lessons that we can learn from what has gone wrong? I want to highlight six important lessons, some of which are rather tentative because I am not entirely sure how they would work, but we need to ask ourselves some very important questions. First, what kind of democratic, institutionalised check can be introduced on the Government’s capability to go to war? Wars can be very attractive to politicians. They make ordinary politicians look like statesmen and national political figures rather than party-political ones. They also generate in the country at large, and certainly in political circles, a heightened sense of existence.
Precisely because of the attraction of war, it is very important to have certain checks. The Prime Minister, rightly and courageously, put the matter to a vote in the House of Commons. That is not enough. It is quite possible for people of a particular political party to have their arm twisted into voting this way or that. I believe that it would be a good idea, if a war is really in the national interest, to insist that there must be a two-thirds majority. After all, if the matter is of that importance and the country is to go to war and to sacrifice lives and property, it should carry national cross-party support. Therefore, a minimum two-thirds majority should be necessary. It is also important that your Lordships’ House should not be marginalised, as if going to war was entirely the business of the other place. I therefore suggest that the House of Lords should be involved and that decisions relating to going to war should be debated and voted on here.
The second important lesson concerns intelligence. Everyone involved knew—they say so now—that, given the intelligence, there was no alternative course of action open to them. If intelligence is so important, which it is, we should ask ourselves some very searching questions. Intelligence can be doctored and misinterpreted. Sometimes, even the way in which intelligence from various sources comes up the system causes many dissenting voices and reports to be sanitised or eliminated, and a kind of consensus is created. That is what happened here. It is also quite possible that the head of the Joint Committee and the Government or the Prime Minister might have prejudged what the other was going to say, and thus certain probing questions about the intelligence do not get asked. Given that intelligence is so crucial and that it has to remain confidential, is there any way in which we might be able to introduce some new procedures?
A further thought occurs to me. I am new to your Lordships’ House, having been here for only six years. Nevertheless, I should have thought that there were certain innovative ideas in one or two other jurisdictions that we might care to think about. One possibility might be to have two or three senior privy counsellors accustomed to handling evidence of this kind, utterly reliable men of honour who could be asked to look at the evidence and advise the Prime Minister on whether they are satisfied that the intelligence is reliable and takes into account all the floating bits of information that might have come from a variety of sources but became sanitised on their way through the system.
The third lesson we might learn concerns the Attorney-General’s legal advice. If the whole nation is to be committed to war and to make sacrifices of lives and property, it should be reassured and its conscience allowed to be quite clear that the war is lawful and right. I suggest that the Attorney-General’s advice should be published in full and debated among the pundits in the area so that we are reassured that the available expert legal advice really is agreed.
The fourth important lesson has to do with our relations with the United States. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, made an extremely important point when he said that we cannot be a senior partner to the US, but can be a junior one. But junior partners do not have to be obsequious or behave like poodles. What does it mean to be a junior partner? Junior, yes, but nevertheless a partner. It is therefore important that we are able to speak our mind freely and bring to the Americans the wisdom that has grown out of our 300 years of political experience in all walks of life. I was struck during my time as a professor there when many of my friends in the Democratic Party would say, “Look, the whole thing is wrong. Why is the British Prime Minister not speaking up? If he did, it would give us the kind of strength we need”. Many of them either felt strongly or were convinced that if we had taken a more open and courageous stand, perhaps the course of war might have been different. If we are going to measure up to the Americans, we ought to link up with other important units of power. They could be the European Union, India, China or other countries. When we work with them it will become possible for us to carry a lot of weight.
The fifth lesson concerns the fact that the idea of imposing democracy and justifying imperialism in terms of democracy is not at all new to the neo-cons. Those of us who know American history will know that unlike European colonialism, which was legitimised in terms of spreading liberty and civilisation, for nearly 150 years the Americans have legitimised what they have done in terms of spreading democracy. I cite Cuba in the 19th century. It was occupied and “liberated” by the Americans from Spanish despotism. The same sort of story was told of the Philippines. The project of spreading democracy was suspended during the Cold War for obvious reasons. It was resumed on 9 November, or 9/11 according to the European calendar, when the Berlin Wall came down, and it was resumed with more ferocity according to the American calendar after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We need to use our wisdom and power to try to persuade the United States that this is not the way to go.
The sixth lesson is that it is likely that we may fall into the trap of thinking that because democracy cannot be imposed, we have no duty to propagate it abroad or to promote it in other countries. That would be a mistake. We do have a duty to promote democracy, but we can learn important lessons from the European Union and how it has gone about it: through incentives, expert advice, making money available, encouragement, joint seminars, training experts, and making sure that democratic ideas are spread in the accession and candidate countries. We know also from painful experience that democracy cannot survive in a country if its neighbours are hostile, because they will see that society is fragmented. If we are to promote democracy in countries where it is badly needed, there will have to be a regional solution because there cannot be a single-country one.
My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests in that I am an adviser to a company that has advised the Iraqi Government. I am also a director of a company with investments in Iran. I thank my noble friend Lord Hurd for introducing this Motion for debate and for a speech that was devastating in its balance and moderation. I certainly strongly support his arguments for an inquiry.
I welcome the decision that there should be a reduction of British troops in Iraq, but I note that that has caused some concern in public opinion in the United States. The Democrats have seized on it, of course, and it has underlined US isolation. However, Government spokesmen have rightly been quick, and right, to point out that the situation faced by American troops is very different from that faced by British troops. But there is no getting away from it: this is a defeat for us, not for our troops who have performed brilliantly, but the whole episode is a defeat for our country and for the Government. That is shown by the fact that until recently British troops were actually fighting the Iraqi police, who are meant to be on the same side as them. This was highlighted by the Economist which reported that opinion polls in Iraq show that a significant proportion of public opinion believes that attacks on coalition forces are justified.
I want to talk about the influence of Iran on the internal situation in Iraq. I apologise for wearying the House by talking about Iran yet again when I did so just before Christmas, but there have been some alarming developments in opinion as it is articulated on the other side of the Atlantic about Iran and its influence in Iraq. It is important that we have full knowledge and that our knowledge is based on facts. Our relations with Iran are already tense for good reasons. I support entirely the Government’s desire to put pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme, but we have to be careful not simply to open up another front of disagreement with Iran. Above all, as has been said in this debate, we do not want to repeat the error of being drawn into another armed conflict based on faulty analysis.
Last week, unnamed US intelligence sources held a briefing in Baghdad where they gave evidence about the role of Iran and the Revolutionary Guards in planting roadside bombs, IEDs included. I do not doubt for a moment that those weapons came from Iran, but whether they came with the approval of the Iranian Government is a different matter. However, if the Revolutionary Guards were involved, they do in theory answer to the supreme ruler. There have also been cases of Austrian rifles exported from Austria to Iran which have ended up in Iraq. I do not doubt the connections, although they are sometimes somewhat ambiguous, between the Shia militia and Iran. It would be strange if there were not a connection. The Shia militia are engaged in infighting in an internal struggle for power and influence. They have become an instrument for ethnic cleansing and for retaliation against Sunni attacks on Shias. They might be compared to Protestant paramilitaries and their retaliatory violence against Catholic communities. Further, the Shia militia are seen by some members of the community as actually providing protection for them. It is worth noting that the supreme ruler of Iran, Ayatollah Khameni, has issued several statements reminding people that in Islam it is totally forbidden for people to retaliate against fellow Muslims because of violence inflicted on them.
I notice that the new US Secretary of Defense, Mr Gates, has been careful in what he has said about Iranian involvement in Iraq, but when reading American newspapers while I was over there recently, I noted that some people are going much further and talking about Iranian support for the insurgents in Iraq. There have even been suggestions that in return for this, America should support the Mujaheddin in retaliatory attacks against Iran.
Iran, of course, has its own terrorist problems, as evidenced by a bombing recently in which 19 people were killed. It seems highly improbable—it would be remarkable—that Iran is giving help to the Sunni insurgents. If such support were being given, it would go very close to undermining the natural relationship that Iran has with the Shia community. It would also go totally against the close relationship that exists between Iran and the Iraqi Government.
It would be remarkable if such a thing was happening but I notice that the Daily Telegraph, which has been supporting these accusations, uses the phrase “Shia insurgents”. Most of the insurgents are, of course, thought to be Sunnis from the Yemen, Algeria and countries which are meant to be friendly towards us such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Shias, of course, are engaged in infighting, and I am sure that some of the militia engaged in that have connections with people in Iran, but it seems most improbable that the accusation of help going from Iran to the insurgents has force. Of course, strange things do go on. People say that the Iranians are sophisticated and clever enough to pursue a dual strategy in foreign policy, but perhaps certain things reflect the chaos in that deeply divided country.
We should note that the Iraqi Government take a rather different view of the Iranian influence in Iraq from that of the United States. Mr Malaki, the Prime Minister, has made that clear on several occasions. He issued his own protest when a number of Iranians who had been invited into Iraq at the behest of the Iraqi Government were then arrested by United States forces. When the Iraqi Government wanted to hold a joint meeting with Iranian Ministers, this again incurred the displeasure of the United States Government.
As to relations with al-Qaeda, in an article last week, Iran’s ambassador to the UN referred to forming common cause with the West against al-Qaeda. A number of al-Qaeda operatives are supposed to be in detention in Iran. America is displeased that these people have not been released and not handed over to the United States. It is hardly surprising that Iran should not want to hand over to the United States people it has put in detention. We should not forget that at the time of 9/11, the then President of Iran condemned the attack on New York as an act of nihilism that was totally incompatible with Islam. The Iranian Government also gave logistical help and intelligence to the northern alliance during the invasion of Afghanistan.
The accusations about Iran and terrorism in Iraq seemed sometimes to lack precision. The other day, in an article in the Sunday Times, the formidable Dr Kissinger referred to Iran interfering wherever Muslims were in a minority. With great respect to Dr Kissinger, I doubt that statement could be justified. It could perhaps be justified or argued about if he had said wherever Shia Muslims were in a minority, but that is not what he said. There seems to be a certain vagueness in many of the accusations that have been made.
When the coalition invasion of Iraq occurred, it altered the whole balance between Shiadom and Sunnidom. It also altered the balance of power within the Shia community in the world and increased the influence of Iraqi clerics. But I do not think that anything that has happened should obscure the legitimate and natural interest that Iran has in Iraq. After the allied invasion of Iraq, there was considerable American alarm about hundreds of thousands of Iranians coming across the border. But this was surely natural. For decades, Iranians had not been able to get to the religious communities of Karbala and Najaf, and when the Government of Saddam Hussein was overthrown religious pilgrimages increased massively and religious tourism became a growth industry. But, at the time, this raised great American suspicions
Iran is accused of seeking hegemony over Iraq and I am sure there may be some justification in that. But the relationship between Iran and Iraq is complicated and there are reasons why Iraq would resist the domination of Iran. They are both Shia countries but the Shias in Iraq have a different view of the role of the clergy. Many of the senior clergy in Iraq are refugees from Iran and take a different view about the position of the clergy and the legitimacy of the position of the supreme ruler in Iran. The Iranians, of course, are Persian and the Iraqis are Arabs. The Iraqis have a sense of identity and nationality. Shia Iraqis fought against Iran in the war—many of them, of course, were compelled to do so, just as young people in Iran were compelled to fight on its side—but there is a sense of Iraqi identity and nationality.
I suspect that, above all, Iran wants Iraq to be stable and united. In that sense, Iran shares the same objective as America in that it wants Iraq to remain as one country. There is a very good reason for this: Iran has its own problems of separatism. In Iran, only 50 per cent of the population are Persian and there are many other minorities such as Azeris, Kurds and Arabs. Iran has its problems of separatism and therefore wants Iraq to remain as one country. It is for that reason that it supported the idea of a Sunni as president and gave help for the organisation of elections. I do not believe the Iranians are afraid of democracy as it is now being practised in Iraq.
I make these points simply because a lot of alarming rhetoric is coming out of the United States on this subject. We have had enough wrong analyses and mistakes. We do not want another war or military action based on wrong assumptions. Above all, we should resist the temptation to blame others for the mistakes that we have made.
My Lords, it seems to me that there are two elements to be considered in discussing Iraq. The first is nothing short of the worst diplomatic and political débâcle—certainly in my lifetime. This is far worse than Suez and the consequences will be far more profound. The other element is the military operation. I notice that the word “defeat” has been used. If we genuinely think we have been defeated in Iraq, we should take our troops out straightaway. In his maiden speech, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, referred to the covenant. He is right: this is the deeper issue to which we will have to return. But part of that covenant surely is that you do not ask servicemen to lay down their lives for their country unless you believe it is of vital national interest. At this juncture, I am not prepared to concede defeat. Whatever else we are facing, the situation is dire in Baghdad and if that goes wrong the country will either undergo partition or be in such a dreadful break-up situation over the next decade, perhaps, that we would never forgive ourselves.
I have spent almost my whole time on the Iraq war since I supported it in arguing that it should have more troops, not fewer. My criticism mirrored that of General Shinseki, the Chief of the Army, who made it quite clear in February 2003 that he thought there should be 200,000 troops. He was knocked down by Paul Wolfowitz, who said he could not conceive of how you would need more people to handle the aftermath of a war than you would put in for the war itself. British politicians have had only recent experience of that. The whole situation in the Balkans is about the need, when you get peace and you begin nation-building, to have substantially more troops. General Shalikashvili, when he was SACEUR in 1993 on the first peace plan, in which I had some part, was ready to put in 60,000 troops—nearly three times as many UN troops as had been on the ground during the actual war. It was an essential element in Dayton that we put in more troops once we had the agreement. We have had to keep them there for year after year, and I believe we will have to keep doing so.
I have no doubt that there has to be a serious inquiry into the Iraq débâcle. I discussed that in this House on 29 June last year, when I likened it to the Dardanelles inquiry. Governance and ministerial and departmental issues could well be discussed while the war was going on. I regret that it looks as if we are going to have a change of Prime Minister with the British Parliament and people never having a chance to comment on the quite disastrous changes by Government that have been made in foreign and defence policy by our present Prime Minister. He did not do that with malice aforethought, but the basic fact is that that structure has dismally failed. It is important, before a new Labour Prime Minister takes office, that they are given some guidance that that structure will not suffice, and that there has to be a return to the well tried Cabinet system of government, where the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary listen to the voices of their advisers and bring that to Cabinet—maybe a war cabinet—and there is a discussion and a general, serious decision-making structure. All that has been torn out. It is not acceptable for us that this new structure should be adopted by the next Prime Minister.
I am not a military strategist—few of us are—but it seems sensible on the face of it to consolidate around the air base in Basra. I ask myself, however, whether we are contributing enough to the problem in Baghdad. I am not saying we should put troops in now. However, when John Sawyers reported on 11 May 2003 on the chaos and anarchy in Baghdad, he suggested that Britain should make a contribution to Baghdad, and he was supported by General Whitley in that. That report went to the Prime Minister, and we have never heard why that proposition was not acted upon.
American Defense Secretary Rumsfeld stood down the 1st Cavalry Division, and it was decided that this large number of American troops should not go in. Now we have this surge of 21,000 troops. It is too late, and, some would say, still insufficient. But to write it off, to say to ourselves, “This is all over now; we are just withdrawing British troops in stages and getting casualties in the process; we have given up”—I am not prepared to accept that. We have a deep-seated obligation, having got this foully wrong, to try to retrieve the situation so that the Iraqi people can live once again with some form of security.
I thought the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, was very wise when she said, and I think she was quoting, “our role in their strategy”. It is no longer our operation, but it is perfectly clear, as the Iraqis are saying to us, that they need stiffening. They need our troops working with them. There is the idea of embedding the troops in the Iraqi Army, as the Americans are doing.
It has already been mentioned that General Petraeus, who is now in charge of that, has a first-class record of doing all the things that, if they had been done throughout the whole of Iraq from the start, would have meant we would now probably be discussing a great success. He learnt the lessons of the Balkans. He realised that he had to carry the Iraqi people with him; he ensured that his troops had a liaison with them. They tied in aid and development as they were dealing with the security situation. This general has been appointed, and he has these troops. I, for one, profoundly hope that the operation is successful. So long as any British troops are in Iraq, I want a British Government contributing to this in a serious and sensible way.
Leading on from the wise speech about Iran to which we have just listened, I ask myself: why are we not putting some of our troops on the border? It is extremely important that we try to help police that Iran/Iraq border, and stop some of the stuff that is coming over. There is a real question about how much the Iranian Government are genuinely trying to destabilise their fellow Shiites in an Iraqi Government.
I personally think that the diplomacy on Iran is now the most essential issue. I am genuinely worried that America still has certainly a vice-president and probably a president who believe that they can settle this issue with massive air assaults on Iran to deal with the enrichment plants. In the same action, I am sure the military would say to them, “You can’t just leave it like that. We’re in Iraq; you have to deal with some of Iran’s armed forces as well”. The decision-making structures in Washington are such at the moment that you cannot be certain that such a folly might not be carried out.
Yet, in a funny, strange way, America is just possibly having one of its considerable successes—the Korean negotiations, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, mentioned. How many people, particularly Democrats, were critical of the Administration’s determination not to be locked into bilateral talks with North Korea but to insist that it was a regional problem, above all for the Chinese— although they also got the South Koreans, the Japanese and everyone in the region involved? The negotiation may or may not be successful, but it was the right framework. That must now be followed with regard to Iran.
In the group that is dealing with the question of enrichment, we have got Russia and China involved, as well as three EU countries and the United States. Regardless of arguments with Putin or others, we must try to put together united actions and say to the Americans, “We are ready to do this diplomacy, and we will obviously give you a major role in it, possibly even a lead role, but it cannot be on the basis that suddenly, at a whim, you walk away from negotiations and take pre-emptive military action against Iran”. I hoped I would never have to say that. I would have believed that relations between us and the United States were such that you would never have to enter into that sort of debate. I would have said that we were genuine allies, we understood the tolerances of each other’s political systems, and if we were working on the ground in a diplomatic mission we would work together as friends and colleagues, and there would be no such pre-emption. But I cannot be sure of that, and we need to have set out clearly the sort of diplomatic role are we playing in Iran.
I still believe it is essential to persuade the Iranian Government that the pursuit of a nuclear armament programme is extremely damaging in the region—but, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, said, we have to recognise why they are feeling so threatened. Pakistan has a nuclear bomb. Who was supporting the Taliban for years, right on Iran’s border? It was Pakistan. Who was building up nuclear weapons while Britain and America were doing precious little about it? It was Saddam Hussein on the other side of their border. They have Israel in the region, with its nuclear weapon. They also know that Saudi Arabia has helped in the financing of the Pakistan nuclear weapon, and could get nuclear weapons extremely quickly if it decided it wanted them. In that situation, Iran has a genuine security fear, and we have to face that and try to arrange for it.
When the Shah was going for nuclear weapons, he was eventually persuaded that he could have a serious role in the region with very sophisticated military technology, and did not need nuclear weapons. The nuclear programme that had started was, I think, genuinely put on one side. Of course there was a change of regime, but Iranian interests do not change fundamentally just because the country has a new regime. It is perfectly possible that the Ayatollah and others are beginning to see that they need to rein in their new president; that his provocative actions, his inability to negotiate, the lack of diplomatic endeavour and some of the things he has said about Israel are utterly unacceptable to the world. I believe the Russians are starting to make that clear to the Iranians. However, no serious Government are going to launch into that long and detailed form of diplomacy unless they have more confidence that their president and vice-president are committed to a serious diplomatic negotiation that will have to go on for at least a year.
You cannot ever ask anybody to take away the option of using military force; I have never believed in removing the threat. When Secretary of State Warren Christopher removed the threat of any military action against the Serbs, at one stroke any form of negotiation was dealt a mortal blow. He did that in February 1993, with no consultation with any of his allies and friends. However, you can order negotiation; you can order priorities; you can put the emphasis on the diplomacy first and then, if you have to, take different military action. But there is certainly a year’s worth of diplomacy in the Iranian situation, and I think it is slightly promising at the moment.
Great mistakes have been made; I made some in underestimating the sheer incompetence of Washington and London. I would never have believed it possible that we could have been so incompetent. I say to my noble friend Lord Jay that I do not believe a review to be necessary. This has to be very authoritative, and I accept all the suggestions the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, has made for this inquiry. My only belief is that it should take place sooner rather than later because the sooner we all learn from our mistakes, the better.
My Lords, I am glad that we now have an opportunity to debate Iraq; it has been quite a long time since we have done so. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, for introducing the debate.
I opposed the war from the beginning. I said so in the debates that we had prior to the invasion. I did not believe in the so-called dossiers—it did not seem likely that a regime that had suffered a catastrophic defeat in 1991, followed by punitive sanctions and bombing attacks, would be able to offer much of a threat to the rest of the world. Indeed, that proved to be the case. The Iraqi regime at the time protested that it had no WMD and submitted a lengthy statement to the UN, but our Government said that no one could possibly believe it. A great deal of effort went into persuading the public and MPs to support the case for war. Nevertheless, many were not persuaded and the war has never been popular. It is even less so now, and public opinion appears to be turning against it, even in the United States.
Many who supported the war claim to have been misled by the so-called intelligence. Others say that while it was right to go to war, it was wrong not to have planned for what would happen afterwards. Those who were responsible for starting the war appeared to have very little knowledge of what was likely to follow a coalition victory. I have often been told by my noble friends who supported the war that otherwise Saddam Hussein would still be in power, and that is a justification. Many Iraqis, faced with the present awful situation, might feel that even that would be preferable.
In any event, my noble friends’ argument underestimates the feeling of revulsion that many of us have about the war and about what it has meant to thousands of ordinary citizens of Iraq. We are concerned at the apparent failure of those responsible for starting it to appreciate what modern warfare does to the people unwittingly caught up in it. Some of us, like me, are old enough to remember what bombing is like for civilians on the ground. It was absolutely terrifying, and I can still recall it.
There has been an unwillingness throughout to count Iraqi deaths and casualties. Various estimates have been made; there was a much publicised one of around 650,000. I was incensed at what happened in Fallujah. A town roughly the size of Cardiff was rendered into rubble as a result of a couple of attacks. No information was available at the time on the number of civilian casualties or about what happened to the civilians who lost their home. I believe that to have been a war crime.
The current insurgency is obviously adding to casualties among Iraqis, although there are mounting casualties among coalition troops, including our own. Perhaps it was really believed that the Iraqi population would welcome the coalition forces as liberators, but clearly that has not happened. Hearts and minds have not been won. Instead, there has been a strengthening of fundamentalism. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, but a secular one. Women had rights, unusual in other Arab states. The 70,000-strong Christian community was left undisturbed.
There have now been elections. We saw on television queues of people lining up to vote, which was reported as a great advance. But there were two separate queues—one for women and the other for men. The women were all dressed in black from head to foot and many were completely veiled. They were there because their clerics told them to be; surely we realised what that meant.
In a very short time, women were having to struggle to retain the personal status law that they had had under Saddam, which gave women rights in relation to divorce and inheritance, denied to them under Sharia law. Women who received professional training and employment under the previous regime are leaving in large numbers for Jordan, where they will be comparatively free.
Members of the Christian community are also leaving because they face threats from religious fundamentalists. Homosexuals are facing threats, too. Gangs of religious fundamentalists are tracking them down and killing them, and getting away with it. Those groups have certainly not benefited from the demise of the previous regime. From many points of view, the Iraq war has been a disaster.
So what should be done now? We have the “surge” of the president of the United States, although this may not be sufficient to end the so-called insurgency. Of course, there is opposition to it in the House of Representatives, while the declining public support for the war in our country has meant that the Government have had to consider withdrawing our troops. Involving the United Nations might seem appropriate, although it does not seem likely that other countries would be willing to send their troops on peacekeeping duties at the present time.
The present Iraqi Government do not seem able to provide stability, which is what most Iraqis want. The United States Government seem to be attributing much of the unrest to the influence of Iran. While there are clearly religious connections with the Shia clerics in the south, there certainly does not appear to be a case for military action against the Iranian regime. It is a repressive regime, but there are signs of internal opposition, particularly among young people, to the heavy-handed rule of the mullahs. We should do whatever we can to assist the democratically inclined internal opposition. For that reason, I am surprised that our Government continue to proscribe the PMOI—the People’s Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran—a peaceable organisation supported by many women. A threat of military action against Iran, however, is more likely to strengthen the present fanatical regime than weaken it.
As far as Iraq is concerned, we should bring our troops home. We should not expose these young men and women to the dangers that they are facing for what seems to be an increasingly dubious outcome. In fact, if we were able to admit that the whole adventure had been a mistake and offer to compensate the Iraqis for what our intervention has done to their people and their country, it might well go some way to restoring our collapsed reputation throughout the Middle East. That, of course, is unlikely to happen, although it should. In the mean time, I support the idea of an inquiry. It might help us to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, for initiating this debate, and echo the congratulations to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker of Aldringham, on his maiden speech. It would have been apt in any circumstances, but it is particularly apt at the present time.
I should like to address my remarks principally to what has been said by the noble Lord, by opposition spokesmen in another place and by other noble Lords about a further privy counsellor review of the decision to go to war. I agree that there are further lessons to be learnt from our experience of the war. I also agree that the learning of those lessons may well require access to the confidential papers of government, which inquiry by a group of privy counsellors allows. But with great respect to the noble Lord, I must say that I doubt whether the scope for an inquiry goes as wide as he suggested. The lessons to be learnt concern the way in which plans were made—or, as everybody now acknowledges, not adequately made—for the situation in Iraq after the defeat of Saddam Hussein.
I doubt whether any further inquiry is needed into the reasons why the United States and the United Kingdom went to war or even into the machinery of government questions referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Owen. Like the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, I think that we, and increasingly the British public, know what happened about that. I have always believed that our Prime Minister had good reason for wishing to support the Americans in removing Saddam Hussein. But he had a problem. He had the clearest legal advice that military intervention solely for the purpose of regime change could not be justified in international law. The only justification for military intervention was to enforce the Security Council resolutions at the end of the first Gulf War prohibiting Iraq’s possession or acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.
I have also always accepted and continue to accept that the Prime Minister sincerely believed that Saddam possessed such weapons and was bent on acquiring more. Our intelligence community believed that, as did other countries’ intelligence communities, as well as Hans Blix when he first took UN observers back into Iraq. But here was the rub: neither the United Kingdom nor the United States had the intelligence that proved conclusively that Iraq had those weapons. The Prime Minister was disingenuous about that. The United Kingdom intelligence community told him on 23 August 2002 that,
“we … know little about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons work since late 1988”.
The Prime Minister did not tell us that. Indeed, he told Parliament only just over a month later that the picture painted by our intelligence services was “extensive, detailed and authoritative”. Those words could simply not have been justified by the material that the intelligence community provided to him.
I remark in passing that the Prime Minister has come close to admitting that his reasons for continuing to support the war were reasons for which there was no legal justification. He has said that he apologises for the mistakes that were made, but he does not apologise for removing Saddam Hussein. But, absent WMD, there was no legal justification for military intervention to remove Saddam Hussein.
There can be no doubt that mistakes were also made in designing and carrying through the post-war strategy. Why were those mistakes made? First, it should be acknowledged that they were primarily American mistakes. The United States’ decisions on the post-war strategy in Iraq were flawed by what can only be described as naivety, ignorance and arrogance.
Why was Britain not more influential in influencing that strategy? Did we try to change it and fail or were we as naive and ignorant as the United States? Maybe that is the area where there is a case for further inquiry, but I suspect that, in this case too, we know the answer. We know that two factors contributed to our ineffectiveness. One was that the British Government were so focused on justifying the war and trying to secure Security Council agreement that they did not focus sufficiently on the post-war strategy. Even today, we have the evidence of Sir Jeremy Greenstock that the Government did not have their eye on that particular ball.
The second factor was the Prime Minister’s centrist and informal approach to running the Government, which prevented all the resources available in departments on this aspect from being brought into play. We know that the Secretary of State for International Development at the time, Clare Short, tried repeatedly to get the Cabinet to focus on post-war Iraq and got short shrift for it. Even so, no doubt there are lessons to be learnt from this. But like the noble Lord, Lord Jay, I am less certain about the timing suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd. It would be a mistake at this moment if we were to allow a preoccupation with the past to divert us from the present and the future. The main thrust of our energy must be forward-looking. We have to decide now what strategy will make the terrible situation in Iraq better and not worse.
As many other noble Lords have said, we must also ensure that inattention does not cause us to make the same sort of mistakes in relation to Iran as were made in Iraq. As I saw from the review that I conducted, as the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, will remember from the Scott inquiry and as I remember from the Falklands inquiry, which took place after the completion of the war, inquiries of this sort are hugely demanding on the resources of the very people in government who are also deeply involved in handling the current situation. Even in a non-partisan inquiry of the sort advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, the reputations of those concerned are closely at stake and they are bound to be concerned about that. The situation in the Middle East is so dangerous that the world cannot afford another blunder. In a no doubt well intentioned effort to learn from the past, let us not allow our attention to be diverted from the perils that lie before us.
My Lords, I start by complimenting the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker of Aldringham. At times like this, it is particularly appropriate to remind us that when war comes to an end the experience that people suffer in them continues. He has great knowledge of that and it is something that we should never let ourselves forget.
I congratulate again the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, for bringing forward this debate. It is an important one. I agree with him about the inquiry. I took the view early after the conflict that we ought to have an inquiry of the Falklands type and I dropped a note to the Prime Minister to that effect. However, it is too late now. This is not the right time for it in any event and I am not sure that the topic is right. I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Butler, that the areas have been well covered in the media and elsewhere, which enables us to know what the key mistakes were. I will return to those, but the core issue for me and for many of us—this was put well by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson—is that Iraq is not the beginning and end of this problem. It is part of a wider problem that has been growing and confronting us, particularly since the end of the Cold War: when and how we should intervene.
The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, who is not here today, made an excellent speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies yesterday. It really bears reading by noble Lords. It addresses the issue that troubles some of my friends on this side—my noble friend Lady Turner would have been impressed by it. The issue is not whether it was a good idea to remove Saddam Hussein, although I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said about the legality of that. My view has always been that there is a case for regime change. We need to make that case. The problem is not just one for Britain and America: it is a problem for the European Union and also the United Nations.
Why is it a problem for the European Union? The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, will remember well that at the time of Bosnia, when he was a distinguished Foreign Secretary, many of us including myself called for intervention. I remember him saying very clearly, “I understand those people who are calling for something to be done, but the problem is they never say what”. I understand that—but let us recognise what was happening there. White European Muslims were being murdered, massacred and tortured by white European Christians and the white European Christians sat back and wrung their hands but did nothing. Then came Kosovo, where the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, worked very hard to get the United States involved.
Europe, with all the soft power that it exercises, which is very important and effective soft power, has neither the will nor the ability to deliver hard power. So we could not actually deal with Kosovo—we wanted the United States to come in and do it for us. We have to ask the question that if the United States is asked to come and sort out some of Europe’s problems, which we cannot deal with ourselves, where is the position of Europe in relation to the United States? That question goes beyond the present Administration in the United States. It is not impossible that we will have other Kosovo-type problems around the borders of Europe, so we really do need to think about this issue of intervention.
The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, yesterday made the point that intervention involves a plan before, a plan during the military operation and a plan after it. I do not think that it is true to say that the United States or the British Government did not have a plan for post-conflict—they did. The trouble is—and the noble Lord, Lord Jay, made this point very well—that there was not enough focus on it here, for reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, has given. But, more importantly, two key mistakes were made.
The first mistake, to which a number of noble Lords have referred, was that there were not sufficient troops on the ground to police the situation. The other mistake was profoundly important. If you are going to make the assumption that we have lost Iraq, although I do not think we necessarily have, the period in which we lost it was between 16 and 23 May 2003. Why? Because on 16 May Paul Bremer, who was put in charge very suddenly by the United States, took the decision to get rid of the whole civil service in Iraq just because it was Ba’athist. Before that, of course, you could not get a job in the civil service in Iraq unless you were a member of the Ba’ath party—so there were good and bad people in that civil service structure. Then, on 23 May, the truly disastrous decision was to get rid of the Iraqi army, sending all those people with training and knowledge of weapons and who knew where the weapons were into long-term unemployment without any pay. At that stage, we lost control on the ground.
My answer to the question whether we should have intervened is yes. But if you are going to intervene you make sure that you have a pre-conflict plan, a plan for during the conflict and a post-conflict plan. We had a lot of that but the mistakes were of the type that I outlined. I do not think that any of this was done with bad intent—which was a point that was made by a number of noble Lords. All of it was done with good intent, but we are still struggling with the issue of how and when to intervene.
I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, will like this or not, but I have always seen him as one of the post-Treaty of Westphalia Foreign Secretaries. That treaty made the point, 400 years ago, that you should not intervene in the internal affairs of the nation state. That treaty was really at an early stage of the development of international relations. If you think about it, that treaty, which was held to for many years, was thrown out in 1944-45, because if we had held to it then we would have stopped attacking Nazi Germany when we reached its borders, having excluded it from all the countries that it had invaded. We would have let Hitler get on with governing the rest.
That is precisely what we did with Saddam Hussein in 1991—and at that stage we had Muslim countries on board with us. I understand why at that stage we made the decision not to carry on and remove him, because there was a fear of civil war—of what we have now, which is something very close to civil war. The words here are not important; we know that the killing is appalling and nobody wants to see it continue. But the issue then was that we had an opportunity to remove a despotic leader.
Another aspect of that argument is that we always underestimate how disastrous a long period of brutality is on a nation, although we got it right in Germany and, largely, with Japan, where again it is worth remembering that far from disbanding the Japanese army the British used it to police Vietnam and parts of Indonesia with British officers in charge. We administered it for six months to a year before the French came in again to take over. We knew what needed to be done in broad terms—but now things are infinitely more difficult.
The nature of modern weapons means—and the Prime Minister is absolutely right on this—that you cannot ignore problems elsewhere in the world. That is where the Treaty of Westphalia approach fails. That process, which held for 400 years, broke down in the 20th century and is certainly not appropriate now. We need ways in which to decide how and when to intervene. We should ask ourselves what would have happened if instead of just saying no to Britain and the United States having made a decision to go into Iraq the United Nations and the European Union had said, “Yes, but we want to make sure that we manage the post-conflict situation”. I venture to suggest that the situation would be significantly different and better, had that happened, because the European Union particularly is very good at post-conflict situations, as is the United Nations. By doing it without them we had the dreadful position of Europe being divided—and when people ask, as a couple of noble Lords have done today, whether the influence that the Prime Minister had in the United States could have been greater, the answer is that yes, it certainly could have been if Europe had been speaking with one voice. But it was speaking with two voices; it was weak and ineffectual—yet it is only 10 years after we pleaded with the United States to come in and use military force on our behalf in Europe. We have fallen into a double standard in that regard.
As someone who supported the war, I accept that it has not gone as planned, to put it mildly, but I actually believe that it could have done. The question is not whether you would have voted for it if you had known the outcome; the answer to that is no, because the loss of blood and life is too great. The real question is whether the intervention could have been done in a more unified and effective way, especially with regard to the post-conflict planning. The answer to that must be that it not only could and should have been done in that way, but we need to do it more effectively in future.
I am always struck that when people say that we should not have intervened in Iraq, in another conversation sometimes the same people—particularly if they come from a Conservative perspective—say that we should do something about Zimbabwe and take action to put Mugabe out of office. Other people, particularly on the left, will say that we have to do something about Darfur, remove the Janjaweed and stop the massacres and ethnic cleansing that are going on there. That goes back to what the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, would say when he was Foreign Secretary—people say that something should be done, but what should be done? The “what should be done” bit is the issue not so much for an inquiry but for an inspired and ongoing policy debate about when and how we intervene. That is the key question; the issue is not whether it was right or wrong to intervene to remove Saddam Hussein—as far as I am concerned, it was right. The issue is essentially how you manage that process.
The United Nations has to come away from the idea that you should never remove a despot. We should remember that most despots who have been removed have been removed without the consent of the United Nations. Pol Pot, Idi Amin and the East Pakistan Government before that region became Bangladesh were all removed by neighbouring states with force without the consent of the United Nations. That is also true of Kosovo. One of my primary reasons for supporting the action was not that of weapons of mass destruction. If you read the debate of 18 March 2003 in the House of Commons, in which I took part, you will see that most of us did not argue about the issue of WMD—the noble Lord, Lord Butler, was right about that; we argued about the United Nations becoming increasingly like the League of Nations, where it could not and would not act, the problem of bringing stability to the Middle East while you had someone like Saddam Hussein sitting in the middle of it all, and other issues. I do not pretend that WMD were not part of it, but they were not the key part of the debate. The debate now needs to move on to the crucial issue of when and how we intervene.
I am not in the business of plugging other people’s books, but if the book of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, is anything like what he described yesterday, he is right. He comes to this matter with the experience of Bosnia and Kosovo. It is a matter that we all ought to consider carefully because this issue of intervention in failed and despotic states will not go away and will become profoundly more dangerous the easier it is to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
My Lords, this House has an extremely good record for mounting excellent debates about Iraq and this one has been no exception. I recall the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, which was of a magisterial nature and appealed for an inquiry, and the moving speech of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, which we shall remember for a long time. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, was particularly interesting when he talked about government motives and preconceptions at the beginning of the war.
I do not think that I make special pleading if I say that if Her Majesty’s Government had listened more carefully, or read more carefully the report of the debates on Iraq on 28 November 2002 and 26 February 2003, we might not be in quite such a bad position as we are today. Those debates and this one are one more good reason to suppose that this Chamber does a very good job. Perhaps that is what my noble friend Lord Jay referred to when he thought that the role of Parliament in these matters should be discussed more carefully.
The fine speeches made by my noble and gallant friend Lord Bramall and my noble friend Lord Skidelsky on 28 November 2002 provide an ample justification for a Cross-Bench peerage. I also recall, if I am not making a mistake, a speech by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, in which, just before the war, he said that if we were looking for monsters to destroy perhaps we should look—this is echoed in what the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said a few minutes ago—towards Zimbabwe rather than to Iraq. The phrase “monsters to destroy” is a quotation from the fifth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams, when he was Secretary of State, in which he advised the United States not to look for enemies and to be careful about entangling alliances—to use a phrase of the second president, President Jefferson.
However satisfactory it is to recall how wise we were in the past, we have to deal with the present situation. In thinking what to say on this subject, I was tempted to recall the previous time when this country was deeply involved in Iraq in the occupation from 1917 to 1921, as a mandatory power from 1917 to 1929 and as the paramount power from 1929 to 1958. I thought that I ought to talk about that since a Member of this House revealed to me that the present United States Secretary of State did not seem to know that we had been in that position in Iraq before. That was the time when, in the words of a book by Christopher Catherwood, Winston’s Folly, we were creating modern Iraq. That was the time when Mr Churchill, then Colonial Secretary, said that we were the greatest Mohammedan power. I suppose that was probably true after 1919, recalling our role in what was then India.
I was tempted to talk about the question of regime change, as touched on, interestingly, by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, recalling that President Theodore Roosevelt, in what was known as the corollary to the Monroe doctrine, thought that brutal wrong-doing was a justification for United States intervention in Latin America. Then I thought that perhaps this war in Iraq represents the Latin Americanisation of American foreign policy. I was tempted, too, to dwell on a point mentioned yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, in the discussion on Iraq when he referred to Mr Peter Galbraith’s suggestion for the partition of Iraq. However, I thought better of all this. I decided that the best contribution I could make would be to talk about what we should do and what we are doing about the ancient history of Iraq and the ancient culture that made such a major contribution to all our lives. I say this because what we know of what is happening at ancient sites in Iraq disquiets me. Many sites appear to have been damaged recently. I say “appear” because the facts are not known. Much has been stolen from all places since the guards have been removed.
The great museum in Baghdad appears to be secure, but that security has been achieved, it seems, by closing the museum completely, even to its own staff. The director of the museum, Dr George, having been threatened, is now in exile in the United States. A British embassy official who was in Baghdad for three years until recently, and to whom I spoke, told me that the idea of visiting Babylon or Ur was quite out of the question, even though Ur is in the United States airbase of Tallil. It is true that Mr MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, went to Baghdad soon after the fall of the old regime. It is worth while pointing out to the House that the British Museum has since then taken a brave and persistent attitude of interest at least in what has been happening in respect of ancient Iraqi or Mesopotamian culture. The curator of Iraqi studies at the British Museum, Dr Curtis, went to Babylon two years ago and discussed his findings, which were extremely disquieting, in the Guardian at that time.
We in the western community, this Government and the United States Government, will have to take into account that this era will be judged on how we have carried out our mandate, which perhaps is the wrong word, to try to ensure that it will always be possible in the future for people—scholars, archaeologists and historians, not to speak of mere cultivated tourists—who want or need to be able to visit what remains of these ancient cultures. They inspired in their time things so important as the invention of bronze, the invention of the plough, even probably the invention of the wheel, not to speak of writing, which was first to be found on cuneiform in Sumerian script in what is now Iraq. Her Majesty’s Government therefore should take care as a priority to ensure that the British Museum in particular, among other institutions, as a leader in the world museum community, has all the support, both financial and logistical, that it may need to influence on the spot our allies, our forces and the Iraqi authorities to ensure that whatever can be is guarded and preserved for the long-term benefits of humanity.
After all, Britain played an immense part in discovering and preserving Iraq’s antiquities in the era of the mandate and in the era of Britain as a paramount power. The great name in this respect is Sir Leonard Woolley who, between 1922 and 1935—bad old days no doubt Iraqi nationalists would consider them—carried through an astonishing series of discoveries, which he summed up in his magnificent book Ur of the Chaldees. Those considerations should be an absolute priority of the United States and Britain, who have taken on themselves responsibility for trying to create democracy in the country.
To assist maintaining or creating such a concern or interest, Her Majesty’s Government might seek or might persuade some of their well-wishers to establish a series of lectures. I hope this does not inspire derision, but they might be described as the Hammurabi lectures, in honour of the king of Babylon who, in 1800 BC or so, inspired the first code of law. The lectures would be delivered by scholars who know not only about Hammurabi but know that democracy, such as the Prime Minister and the President of the United States seek to leave behind them in this territory, needs the rule of law as much as it does the art of counting votes.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, for the opportunity to look at the position of women in Iraq. It is a subject that we skim over but very rarely talk about in any detail. I will show that theirs has been a turbulent journey, both before and after the fall of Baghdad on 10 April 2003.
In December of that year, the Iraqi governing council, with almost no debate, quietly passed Resolution 137, which transferred key provisions of personal and family law from civil authority to traditional law—a resolution that threatened women’s rights in marriage, divorce and inheritance. Iraqi women’s groups mobilised public protests and private negotiations calling for the repeal of the resolution. They succeeded and the resolution was subsequently repealed. The consequence of this attempt to reduce women’s rights was that it motivated Iraqi women to organise, to demonstrate and successfully to represent themselves. In the words of Nasreen Berwari, who became Minister of Municipalities and Public Works, it brought Iraqi women together for a common cause. Co-operation and organisation crossed religious and ethnic lines—Shia, Sunni, Christian, Arab, Kurd and Turkmen all worked together.
However, to really appreciate that achievement, it is necessary to look briefly at the life of women under Saddam Hussein. Iraqi women had been historically among the best educated and professionally equipped in the region but, by the end of Saddam’s rule, there had been a dramatic reduction in women’s rights with respect to divorce, child custody and inheritance. More than two-thirds of Iraqi women were illiterate and men were allowed to marry additional wives. Each year at least 400 women were murdered in so-called honour killings under Article 111 of the Iraqi penal code, introduced by Saddam in 1990. Thousands of women were subject to imprisonment, torture, rape and execution because either they or their family members spoke out against the regime or were suspected of disloyalty.
Having seen their rights eroded by Saddam, it is clear that Iraqi women were and are going to attempt to ensure that their future is based on equality and freedom. A start to achieving that aim has been made. Three years ago, the interim constitution guaranteed women 25 per cent of seats in the national assembly, despite the fact that there were no women on the drafting committee. The target was not reached, with only 18 per cent of women representatives being appointed—but that was put right. In the elections in January 2005, women surpassed the quota— 87 women, 31 per cent, were elected. This was achieved by mandating that one in every three candidates on each party’s ballot was a woman. Six women were made Ministers and many serve on district, local and municipal councils throughout Iraq. A great deal of that success was due to the activity of women’s organisations and by women encouraging women to participate in the election, despite the threat of insurgent violence.
This rapid increase in activity has also seen Iraqi women becoming involved internationally, for instance, at the UN 48th annual Commission on the Status of Women, held in New York, and the Global Summit of Women, held in Seoul. But for many women, participation in such activity was a new experience; to provide support, women’s conferences were held and women’s centres were established throughout Iraq to promote the empowerment of women. The centres offer computer, financial and literacy classes, along with access to information on healthcare, legal services and women’s rights.
One of the UK Government’s key contributions in helping to build that democracy was to appoint two gender advisers to the Coalition Provisional Authority, one in Baghdad and one in Basra. Both experienced advisers were commissioners from the Women’s National Commission, which advises the UK Government on women’s issues. A group of Iraqi women were then invited to the UK by the commission and funded by the British Council. The internship programme was a journey of discovery for those women. They were able to see how devolution worked in Scotland and Wales; and in Northern Ireland, they talked with women with direct experience of living with the threat of terrorism over many years and of shaping peace initiatives. They had the opportunity also to shadow women MPs here at Westminster, including women Ministers, past and present. Those experiences gave them an invaluable insight into the role that women play in a developed democracy.
Since their return to Iraq, they have between them trained more than 600 women in leadership skills that they learnt here in the UK—a small number, but a significant step. As one of the women said,
“terrorism cannot and will not take away the knowledge and skills we have learned and cascaded through the internship programme; they will outlive the present atrocities”.
We welcome that optimism and must support it. But, as my noble friend Lady Ramsay said, it is a very complex picture. Many challenges remained, and the life of Iraqi women is still far from easy. Millions of women have lost their husbands, have become destitute and are at the same time the sole breadwinner. While men make up the majority of the victims of the escalating violence, it has had a distinct and debilitating impact on women’s daily lives.
Only recently, reports from women’s groups show that throughout Iraq, even in the north, women are harassed if they attempt to mobilise and lobby for their rights under the constitution. In the south and other parts, women are now forced to wear the hijab and adopt conservative dress. Millions of women and girls dare not leave their homes to go to school, university or work, or to go to the market to be able to support their families. Female genital mutilation is still an issue in the Kurdish provinces. Early and enforced marriage and honour crimes still threaten women’s lives.
Only yesterday the Daily Telegraph reported a claim by a woman that she had been raped by members of security forces who had entered her home in central Baghdad. The Prime Minister rejected her claim. However, for me, the issue is not whether she was telling the truth but, rather, that the potential outcome is that she may be killed to salvage the family honour—the victim of an honour killing.
The constitution of Iraq is under review, but there is some confusion about the process of that review and when the review committee will complete its work. Perhaps my noble friend can shed some light on how this constitutional review is being carried out and when it will be ratified. That is crucial as, once again, the women’s organisations are having to campaign in increasingly difficult environments to repeal the intensely discriminatory Article 41 in the draft constitution.
Article 41, if passed, would erode women’s rights. It would replace current family laws with ones pertaining to specific religious and ethnic communities. It would erode women’s rights in respect of marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance far more dramatically than the original Resolution 137. So it is crucial that we in the UK continue to engage and keep faith with the women of Iraq and work with them to have the confidence to challenge any attempt to make Article 41 law.
I also ask for a further intervention by the UK Government. They are, as I understand it, working with the Iraqi Minister of Finance on the distribution of the development fund. While it is crucial that we continue to build on social and health improvements, I hope that, within that, account will be taken of the specific and special problems of the women and children of Iraq.
In conclusion, I reiterate that we must continue to support those brave women who are striving not only for women’s advancement and liberation but for a peaceful democracy in Iraq.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, for giving us this opportunity. I agree very much with what the noble Baroness has just said. I hope that the Minister will send a message of condolence to Iraq from this debate, not only as a tribute to our troops in the field but in recognition of the thousands of deaths and injuries sustained every month by Iraqi civilians, whom we also mourn, and of the millions who are still suffering daily from the effects of civil war.
Among so many atrocities, one of the saddest that I have read about this month concerns a baby girl called Shams, who has half a face. Some weeks ago, she was with her parents in Sadr City, the mainly Shia area of Baghdad, when three cars exploded. Her mother died and half the baby’s face was blown away, leaving her eyes buried under skin.
“Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war”.
Those words from Mark Antony seem to me all too familiar today. I agree with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, that, sitting here, we can scarcely imagine the realities of war. I hope that over the past two weeks some noble Lords have seen the production of the Baghdad “Richard III”, which I saw at Stratford. It was quite something.
That little girl was lucky from one point of view: her father, Hisham, survived and they have been evacuated to the Red Cross hospital in Amman, where doctors from Médecins sans Frontières are trying to treat her with plastic surgery. She is, as we have heard, one of almost 4 million Iraqis who have left their homes. The total number in Jordan, Syria and other countries is approaching 2 million, but nearly as many are already displaced inside Iraq. The UN agencies and NGOs are preparing for even bigger numbers in what the International Rescue Committee calls,
“a refugee crisis of historic proportions”.
I think that we underestimate what is happening. By the end of this year, at least another half a million people will have been internally displaced, making roughly one in five or six Iraqis who are on the move. Two out of five Iraqi Christians have already left the country. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, also mentioned the psychological effects. I have received an e-mail from an Iraqi friend about her mother-in-law. She says:
“The vibrant optimistic positive woman I knew has withdrawn into a shell of despair and total disbelief at how a life can change so drastically in one lifetime. She has lost almost everything she loves or cares for including a son who was killed by the Baathists … can you image the humiliation and the emotional state that helpless woman and thousands like her have to go through now as a normal state of affairs?”.
Syria and Jordan have been the most welcoming of countries, but they have had little international assistance so far. Social services are stretched to breaking point. Iraqi refugees now have to apply for residence within a fortnight. They are only getting temporary visas, if that, and are asked to pay for their own healthcare. NGOs are finding that even their own staff are held up at borders. Offers of help from the UK to Syria and Jordan would now be timely, either direct to the non-governmental organisations or through the UNHCR.
On the IDPs, the recent report that thousands of Shia in Kirkuk, resettled in Kurdish and Assyrian Christian areas under Saddam Hussein, may now officially return home will cause further ethnic tension. As for a referendum on the control of oil supplies in the north, the existing violence between Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen communities could easily worsen. One effect of migration into cities is that empty houses are not being reallocated. They are often taken over by armed groups trying to cleanse an area of another sect. Ethnic cleansing makes an area secure, but much more dangerous. Even the Red Crescent has recently suspended its operations owing to the kidnapping of eight of its staff. Doctors and their families have become a prime target of kidnappers. Most senior doctors have now left Iraq, and there is immense pressure on junior doctors. Hospitals have to suffer regular intrusion from militia or coalition forces, some of them demanding priority treatment. Even ambulances and medical conveys are being fired on.
Fortunately, the informal networks have been coping when health services break down, but this situation cannot continue indefinitely. Everyone dreads a further deterioration. They know that a lot of aid has been wasted. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, for pointing out our responsibility for not auditing all the funds that went through the coalition.
The straight question before us is whether foreign occupation is making peace in Iraq or exacerbating the war, as suggested by General Dannatt last year. I agree with my noble friend Lord Jay that there must be more accountability to Parliament. I say to my noble friend Lord Thomas that it is going to require more than debates. I was a member of the Constitution Committee, which recommended a convention that would apply not just to Iraq, but to situations like the four-figure deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan without any reference to Parliament.
General Dannatt’s comment must have led directly to the Prime Minister’s Statement yesterday, and leaves me wondering whether this latest announcement is not a feint to satisfy critics rather than a genuine withdrawal. I agree with those on the Liberal Benches who are looking for more clarity, difficult as it is, because that is what the public demand. Whatever our views on the invasion, no one doubts what our troops were there for, or that they have fought gallantly. We must not talk up collapse and fragmentation, but we must have doubts about our troops’ effectiveness in the long run. What I have read of the recent US national intelligence estimate and have since heard from NGOs suggests that security is deteriorating faster than ever and that political and diplomatic action, rather than troop deployment, is the only way to reverse this process.
President Bush has drawn the opposite conclusion. He may have executive power, but he no longer carries enough weight in Congress. There is no longer a clear lead from the top. Inertia in diplomacy is dangerous for any state tied down in war, especially for a superpower, because of its consequences for us all. This is a different situation; there can be no comparison with 9/11 or 2003. The uncertainty surrounding the US Administration at present is in sharp contrast with the firmness of the original decision to invade four years ago. The coalition against terrorism included several European and Arab states whose presence has since melted away, leaving us high and dry.
The Baker-Hamilton plan was encouraging and useful at the time, but I cannot see any actions arising from it. William Polk, the US analyst, was surely right when he said last month that it was naive to expect Iran and Syria to co-operate with the United States, which has been attacking and denouncing them for five or six years.
We all hope that the latest security measures will work, at least for a time, and that they will contain some of the fighting, but history shows that they can only be temporary and cannot be regarded as a solution. I believe that our forces should be given a clear date for withdrawal, and we need to persuade the US of the same. There is a widespread view in the Middle East that, whatever the case was for invasion, there is no longer a case for occupation. By setting a timetable, we have a greater chance of reconnecting diplomatically with the neighbouring Arab states that should be our natural allies because of history and the record of the Foreign Office in this region. If we remember our debate on the Serious Fraud Office, we cannot simply expect automatic co-operation on intelligence from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt if we are not on their wavelength on the Iraq war.
What efforts are being made to improve our contacts with the neighbouring Arab states and to revive the original coalition against terrorism of countries that had a shared objective after 9/11 and may still feel a responsibility for the ending of the war after the occupying forces have left? The Saudi Government, in particular, are taking considerable interest in a peaceful settlement throughout the region. What expectations does the Minister have of the Arab summit in Riyadh in March, which could see the launch of a strong initiative to reactivate the role of Arab states in Iraq? Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, has invited Iraq’s neighbours to a prior conference in Baghdad. These are surely opportunities to be seized by the UK, perhaps alongside the European Union this time, because if nothing else we are going to need to make more friends in the Middle East.
Finally, there are the threats against Iran. The United States argues that they will reinforce sanctions, but I see them as a deliberate diversion away from Iraq. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, who made a strong case against US rhetoric. Such threats belong to a dangerous foreign policy. They reopen the discredited axis of evil and provide more fuel for Arab and world criticism. It is an unrealistic course of action, which we should reject by speaking out clearly at once.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, who made a first-class speech setting out in as objective a way as possible the argument for an inquiry. However, I am not sure that the inquiry’s conclusions would necessarily reflect all the concerns that he harbours about the Iraqi conflict. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, for his contribution that put clothing on the remit for the inquiry called for by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell. However, I am concerned that an early inquiry would be unhelpful because we need to have the benefit of the evidence given in the United States to the further inquiries that the new legislatures in Washington will inevitably undertake. I cannot believe that US witnesses would bare their souls to a UK inquiry before there are similar inquiries in the United States of America. We also need to have the benefit of the freedom of information inquiries, which we will all no doubt feast on at some stage in the future.
I believe that an inquiry is inevitable, and as I understand the position the Government have committed themselves to one at some future stage. Such a statement was made to the media last year during an early morning interview on the “Today” programme. It is not as though we have set our faces against an inquiry; it is just that in my view it should not take place at this stage. I support the Government's position. However, there was an omission in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme. When he set out his remit for an inquiry, which would provide a very good template for any future inquiry, he omitted the issue of sanctions and their link to subsequent military action. I want to focus my comments today on the sanctions policy.
The argument on sanctions is not over. Why? First, many in Iraq are sore over the failure of the United Nations to properly manage them. Indeed, they were the source of the seeds of distrust sown which now pervade throughout Iraq in Iraqis’ attitudes to the UN. Secondly, most of the companies that breached sanctions have got away with it. The policy of sanctions was introduced to bring Saddam Hussein’s regime to heel—a regime which it was felt at the time if ignored would ultimately destabilise the whole region through military interventions, and destabilise the international economy through threats to oil supply and the oil price. It came in the form of a whole series of resolutions—661, 687, 778, 986, 1051, 1175, 1284 and 1409.
I supported the policy on sanctions right through, as did many in this House. I supported sanctions on the basis that they would be enforced. They were not. In 1998 I changed my mind on the sanctions policy and argued openly for military intervention. Why? I had arranged a visit by a member of my staff in the Commons to check on reports that there were large-scale trades in illegal oil exports by truck from northern Iraq into southern Turkey. He confirmed the report after a visit. There were also reports from SCIRI representatives in London of substantial shipments by barge of illegal oil traffic through ports in southern Iraq. The INC in London and Washington was regularly reporting corruption in the UN Oil for Food programme through the manipulation of currency transactions.
The Kurdish political party, PUK, was reporting kickbacks on illicit oil sales. It had picked up this information while monitoring KDP revenue-raising operations in northern Iraq. Finally, the sanctions policy was not hurting the people it was intended to hurt; it was actually hurting the people of Iraq. The truth is that the lack of proper enforcement of the sanctions regime was propping up Saddam Hussein’s regime with illegal revenues.
I went on two separate occasions to Washington to argue for enforcement, on the first occasion to Congress and on the second to the State Department. Sanctions for me were always an alternative to war. I raised the issue through the Intelligence and Security Committee on delegations we had to Washington. I raised the issue when I led an Anglo-American parliamentary group delegation to Washington in the late 1990s. I raised the issue repeatedly on the Floor of the House of Commons in Questions and in debate. I argued for a Commons Select Committee inquiry to consider sanctions, which it subsequently did. It confirmed abuse of the sanctions policy. The problem was that everyone who could do anything about it turned a blind eye. The most that we could secure was an assurance in Congress that, at some stage, an inquiry would be set up. Indeed, that has happened in the form of the Volcker inquiry, but very late in the whole process.
I then started arguing in the Commons and elsewhere for military intervention. I blame the war on those who breached sanctions. I blame Kofi Annan and his failure to stand up to the international community and demand enforcement of sanctions. I also blame the Governments of France, Russia and, in particular, the Clinton White House, who turned a complete blind eye and did not even want to know about the problem. A decision had obviously been taken in Washington: “We will just let them get on with it”. People in the State Department were arguing that that was providing revenue through an illegal tax-take to the KDP in northern Europe.
In my view, they will bear responsibility because it is they who propped up the Saddam Hussein regime. If we need proof of this, all we need to do is read Volcker. It linked 2,400 companies to breaches of sanctions. It linked 11 British companies to bribery allegations. The roll of dishonour included thousands of companies with global interests, notably Daimler, Chrysler, Siemens, Volvo, Glencore and a host of other international operations. They were all implicated in undermining the sanctions policy.
The truth is that many of those companies by their actions, along with a freeze-framed UN, prolonged the policy of sanctions and made it unenforceable. They bear responsibility for the agony of Iraq and the major loss of life. However, the major powers are still dragging their feet by failing to pursue many of the companies involved.
One of the organisations that particularly interests me is the Australian Wheat Board, with its alleged payment of £125 million to the Saddam Hussein regime. Another allegation, perhaps smaller, which I have been following is one made against a Mr John Irving, a British oil trader—that he and others, through a company called Bayoil, corruptly paid commissions to the regime. I support John Irving's call for a Serious Fraud Office inquiry into the allegations.
However, my real interest is in the Weir Group. It has reportedly admitted that it paid millions in irregular payments through a Swiss bank account. It claims that it made the payments through an agent, for whom it did not have responsibility. Volcker says that a man called Andrew Macleod negotiated the deal. Macleod was questioned and stated:
“I work for the company and I did as I was told. I did what was required in Baghdad”.
An agent giving evidence to Volcker corroborated his account by providing copies of two e-mails from Mr Macleod in January 2002 that,
“requested the agent’s assistance with kickback payment arrangements. In one of these e-mails, WEMCO Envirotech’s Financial Manager advised Mr. Macleod of ‘this “10% AFTER SALES TAX”’ and the need to make sure that the shipping company had proof of payment, before ‘Iraqi Authorities’ will ‘let the vessel discharge the goods’. Mr. Macleod forwarded the e-mail to the agent with a list of all contract numbers and asked the agent to ‘supply’ the payment information for these contracts: ‘Trust you will action accordingly’”,
On that matter, the Volcker report states:
“Weir declined the Committee’s request to meet with employees who were involved in Weir's business in Iraq. Most significantly, the Committee requested to speak with Andrew Macleod, a current Weir employee who appears as the contract signatory ... Instead, Weir responded to inquiries through Alan Mitchelson ... Mr. Mitchelson stated that Weir’s own investigation has not revealed evidence of any agreement ... Despite Weir's insistence that its agent was to blame and that there was no agreement by its own employees to pay any kickbacks to Iraq, documents obtained by the Committee from Iraq reveal that Mr. Macleod signed several agreements to pay kickbacks on Weir’s behalf”.
I shall not go on quoting from the Volcker report, but the reality is that such companies have blood on their hands, because they are the ones that undermine the policy of sanctions that would have worked. This war would have been avoided if we had properly enforced the sanctions policy. It is now 15 months since Strathclyde Police visited the United Nations in New York to interview the Volcker staff on the Weir allegations. What has happened? Nothing. These inquiries are being driven into the long grass all over the world, and now we talk of introducing sanctions against other states in the region. What nonsense. Exactly the same will happen in the future. That is why I will oppose whatever sanction regimes are proposed by whatever British Government in the future—because I know, on the basis of our experience of Iraq, that they are unenforceable.
I will welcome the inquiry of the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, when it is finally set up, although, as I said, it is premature at the moment. But I hope, as the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, says, that lessons will be learnt from the period leading up to the war when a sanctions policy was supposed to be in operation. That should be at the heart of any inquiry set up in the future.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker of Aldringham, on a powerful maiden speech. It is a particular pleasure to welcome him; we were colleagues as fellow assistant chiefs of our services 15 years ago in the Ministry of Defence. He made a particularly powerful speech about the dedication of our servicemen. We tragically lost a Royal Marine in Helmand province yesterday to an anti-personnel mine, and we on these Benches offer our condolences to the families.
I also thank the Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, for giving us this opportunity to focus on so many issues about Iraq. His call for an inquiry is important and, as my noble friend Lord Alderdice said, we on these Benches support the call. We have had some discussion about the appropriateness of the timing of such an inquiry, but we need to learn lessons from our mistakes, both in the run-up to the conflict and after the war fighting period had finished, because if we do not learn those lessons, we shall repeat the mistakes. I argue that we are already in the process of repeating them; we are looking at benign outcomes when they may not be benign, and we are kidding ourselves about how easy the security situation is, even as we speak.
Noble Lords should be grateful to the United States, which publishes such comprehensive information for us all to read; a lesson in open government. The most significant document recently was the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which was approved by the US National Intelligence Board on 29 January. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm in his speech that the United Kingdom intelligence community shares the assessments of all its US colleagues who signed up. We have talked about whether a civil war is going on in Iraq. The key judgment in the estimate was: “The Intelligence Community”—that is, the US intelligence community,
“judges that the term ‘civil war’ does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al-Qa’ida and Sunni insurgent attacks on Coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence. Nonetheless, the term ‘civil war’ accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements”.
The recommendation in this assessment of the problem of the population displacements, both internal and external, about which the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, spoke, is important. What are the Government doing in terms of taking our share of the international refugee burden that has resulted from these displacements?
The National Intelligence Estimate concludes that if the security situation does not improve in Iraq—it is fairly pessimistic about that possibility—there are three possible outcomes. First, we may get chaos leading to partition; secondly, there may be the emergence of the Shia strongman to take control of Iraq; or thirdly, there may be anarchic fragmentation of power. Those are the United States intelligence estimates about the way Iraq is going and those thoughts should govern us when we look at our strategy.
As other noble Lords have said, we look at commentators—official, academic and journalists—from the region, from Europe and from the United States. I have found that, of those, the most consistently reliable one has been Anthony Cordesman who holds the chair in strategy at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He has been particularly reliable at laying out options and their implications over the past four years. Earlier this month, he gave a very sombre assessment of the options and the likely outcomes in the light of President Bush’s new approach with the surge operation into Baghdad. I want to concentrate on one aspect of his analysis which plays into this question of whether the British Government and, indeed, the United States Government, are repeating previous mistakes by being overly complacent or optimistic about the situation.
We have been told time and again that the situation in Iraq is not uniformly bad; namely, that 14 out of 18 provinces are in reasonable shape, that the UK area of responsibility is progressively being handed over to Iraqi forces as it is so much less difficult than elsewhere, and so on. Yesterday, the Lord President told us that 80 per cent of the violence was around Baghdad. Last night, on “Newsnight”, the Defence Secretary said that 80 to 90 per cent of the violence was around Baghdad and the Prime Minister this morning on “Today” coincidentally used the figure 80 to 90 per cent of the violence being in Baghdad.
Cordesman identifies this assessment as a misapprehension. He notes that the Iraq Study Group was correct when it said that,
“official US reporting on the patterns of violence in Iraq may reflect less than a 10th of the actual struggle, and much of this violence is outside Baghdad”.
That is why looking beyond the headline suicide bomber deaths and the death squad murders in the capital is so important. Even if the United States strategy to gain control of Baghdad were to succeed, which the assessment considers to be fairly difficult, there is no plan for what to do beyond that to secure the remainder of the country. As Cordesman says:
“So far, however, the US has not shown that it has a clear plan for taking control of Baghdad with the US and Iraqi resources it has available, or described a credible operational plan for moving from ‘win’ to ‘hold’ and ‘build.’ It has completely failed to set forth a strategy and meaningful operational plan for dealing with Iraq as a country even if it succeeds in Baghdad”.
Cordesman does what we call in military circles a “red team” analysis of the options open to the insurgents and militants. I trust that similar studies are going on in the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office. Among the various options open to them is the possibility that during this surge operation in Baghdad, they move their action away from the capital, which may of course have a direct effect on the UK region in the south. He also suggests that the Shiite militias may stand down temporarily, while the Sunni insurgents will have to continue operations, which will of course result in the United States and Iraqi security forces effectively fighting on the Shiite side. There is an outcome then which divides the spoils between the Shias and Kurds, and the worst chaos is averted. But it is a far cry from the democratic aspirations that we trumpeted originally and might give rise to the Shia strongman predicted by the National Intelligence Estimate. I wonder what the Government’s view is on that. Is that a least worst option as we see things now?
When we come to the British sector, just how well under control is it? We have been assured repeatedly that the handing over of our four provinces was on course. Maysan was the next to go, and indeed as recently as 22 November the Foreign Secretary said in the other place that she expected it to be transferred to Iraq authority in January. Yet as the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, told us on Tuesday, Maysan province is now so dangerous that we cannot recover a C-130 Hercules aircraft after a landing incident and instead must destroy it at a loss of £45 million. This does not seem to bode well for the security situation. So I ask the question again: are we not being too complacent? Indeed, today’s Los Angeles Times identifies a report from the Pentagon to Congress about American concerns about the state of play down in the south.
I turn now to what this means for the United Kingdom’s contribution in Iraq. Yesterday the Prime Minister outlined an indicative timetable for a partial withdrawal. The question is whether this is the right strategy. If the United States approach is yet again too short term and lacking the follow-through plan, a repeat of the mistakes we talked about back in May 2003, we need to consider where that leaves us for the UK forces. I share the deep concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Owen, that abandoning Iraq to absolute chaos is not on, and it would probably mean that the neighbouring states would have to get involved with unknown consequences for conflict in the region. Yet I disagree with him about what that means for the UK forces. It does not mean that the UK forces are locked there for ever; they are not the essential linchpin to security in Iraq. They make up just 5 per cent of the multinational forces deployed and they will be even less after the forthcoming reduction. If they were totally withdrawn, as we have argued, their tasks would be absorbed by other forces, predominantly those of the United States, which has already indicated that given our drawdown it intends to provide a reserve and perhaps go into our area if it looks as though it is getting out of control. The United States would enjoy unity of command and be able to apply its strategy for good or ill across the whole of the country, and we would not risk the 5,000 or so remaining UK soldiers being held hostage on a single base in a worsening security situation, perhaps triggered by any military offensive against Iran, about which a number of noble Lords have spoken. Our coalition partners are obviously coming to similar conclusions. Just as the Statement was being repeated here in the House yesterday, the Danes announced that they will all be out by August. Our small force at Basra air station is going to find itself very vulnerable and an attractive target to insurgents.
This is not an abandonment of our ally, the United States, because we have a second challenging operation in which we are working together—in Afghanistan. We have today a relatively small but very professional military, and we all know what tremendous work they do. Dividing our assets between two campaigns is not a recipe for success in either. We have to supply two theatres and the valuable enabling assets such as airlift, both strategic and tactical, is in short supply. I do not expect the Minister, from his Foreign Office portfolio, to comment on the military wisdom of concentrating our forces on one campaign, but I trust he recognises that operating for so many years beyond our planned requirements is a matter of deep concern to those who value the capability of our Armed Forces. They have spent four years in Iraq doing difficult and dangerous work with their customary great skill, but it has taken a long-term toll on our capability. We are no longer sure what outcome the United States is aiming for in Iraq. It is time to concentrate our effort on that other difficult and important task in Afghanistan. As the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said, the Government would be wise to plan now for the early withdrawal of all Armed Forces from Iraq.
My Lords, it is our custom to say that the debates we hold in your Lordships’ House are very timely, although we do not always mean it. However, if ever there was a debate which landed right on schedule, on the right runway at the right time, this is it. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Hurd for introducing it with such a superb presentation of his case, to which I will come in a minute.
The debate has been greatly enhanced by the maiden speech of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker of Aldringham, who brought enormous expertise and wisdom to it. He reminded us of the crucial covenant between servicemen in the Armed Forces, the people of this country and the representatives of the people of this country, a covenant which must hold and must never be allowed to break. We obviously want to hear more of the noble and gallant Lord’s wisdom in the future.
Time has passed since the debate in the other place on 31 October last year on a possible inquiry into the whole Iraq affair. Since it started, 132 British soldiers have died on active service in Iraq; between £4 and £5 billion has been spent, although it may be much more than that; and hundreds, if not thousands, more Iraqi lives continue to be lost in the unending bloodshed. On top of that, the number of deaths continues to rise in Afghanistan. I join others in offering condolences and expressing sadness at the death of the Royal Marine yesterday and send sympathy to his grieving family.
Also, since the debate in the other place in October, there have been a number of crucial developments. The whole saga of Iraq and its associated problems is, in effect, entering an entirely new phase. First, as noble Lords have pointed out, there has been the Baker-Hamilton report, with its emphasis on diplomacy and on the need for regional co-operation. Many of us agreed with that report, even though to my mind it suffered from a big defect in that it contained the central belief that the USA still has the power to impose its template on the Middle East region and be the dominant power, and that it still has the capacity to extract itself from its own errors. I believe that is a flawed view and that America will need help from many others, not only Europe and the regional powers, including, I am afraid, Iran, but the rising Asian powers—although that raises broader issues.
Secondly, the so-called surge strategy has begun to unfold, with 21,500 extra US troops now filing into Baghdad to somehow, we hope, pacify a situation that 130,000 troops could not pacify.
Thirdly, there has been the UK decision, announced yesterday, to wind down troop levels, combined with what most people now recognise as a depressing loss of direction in policy. I cannot think of any better example of that than the simultaneous welcome for the Baker-Hamilton report, which urged talks not troops, and for the Bush initiative that followed it, which urged troops not talks. Both were ticked and supported by the British Government. Truly Britain’s reputation for clarity and purpose in international policy has never been weaker nor our influence more tarnished.
We are told that this latest withdrawal is justified by improvements in Basra security. Indeed, the spin has been that it somehow fits with the concurrent American build-up of troops in Baghdad. As I mentioned yesterday, I hope and trust that this picture is accurate and that there is nothing artificial about this rather sudden judgment that Basra is peaceful and Iraqi forces can take over. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, also raised that question. It would be good to know how and when this decision was reached. Indeed, it would be good to know how any decisions have been reached over the past three years as we have found ourselves stuck deeper and deeper in the quagmire. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who aspires to be Prime Minister, keeps repeating to us, we must learn the lessons of Iraq. To learn the lessons, however, we need to know much more clearly than at present what went wrong and why. We need to examine the flawed assumptions, the misleading generalisations about the region, the warnings ignored, the situations misunderstood and the relationship with Washington in all its aspects.
My noble friend Lord Hurd asked whether that would damage troop morale. On the contrary: as we enter this next phase, the ideal time is approaching for a clear redirection of purpose and objectives in this nation. We owe that to our dedicated, professional troops operating in, at the very least, atrocious conditions. How right the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, and others were to remind us of just what appalling conditions our troops have had to fight under. None of us can even imagine the business of going out and carrying a 50 kilo load in 50 degrees of heat, let alone having to fight and avoid an instant high risk of death.
It keeps being said that we have had enough inquiries. There have been the Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place, the Intelligence and Security Committee, the Hutton investigation into the death of Dr Kelly and the inquiry of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, into intelligence failures. With all due respect to all those undertakings, however, a host of major questions remain unexamined. The first is the puzzle of Cabinet procedures and how these decisions came to be taken. Why, asked the noble Lord, Lord Owen, in a very thoughtful speech in this House on 29 June last year, was there no war Cabinet to guide and shape policy as the hour of invasion approached? What part did we play in the timing of the invasion?
I hope that I am not breaching confidences or secrets to say that when I was very kindly called to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the time of the invasion and was about to ask in a puzzled way, “Why now?”, before I could speak the Minister in question—no names—turned to me and asked, “Why now?” That is where the question came from. From the start there was a feeling that policy was being made on the hoof and in response to events across the water in Washington. There was a feeling of what the Butler report described—my noble friend Lord Hurd reminded us of this—as the informality of policymaking. In response to that, the Prime Minister then dutifully promised, in the Government’s reply to the Butler report, that any small group brought together would in future operate formally as an ad hoc Cabinet committee. We have to ask: why was it not so operating from the start? Have things changed now? Are we sure these things are operating correctly now? We do not know.
As the noble Lord, Lord Owen, and my noble friend Lord Hurd have reminded us, inquiries while operations are in progress have a substantial precedent, notably the inquiry into the Dardanelles fiasco while the First World War was still raging, but also the Falklands inquiry—well, that was after the Falklands, but there are other precedents. That is the reality we must face.
Secondly, since the debate last autumn, a plethora of new evidence has been tumbling out in the United States, in books and inquiries, about the intelligence process and what went wrong. As the Butler report makes clear, SIS had a sorry tale to tell of unreliable sources, overworked staff, ill defined responsibilities and ineffective validation procedures—for which no one on this side of the Atlantic seems to have been held responsible, which is rather deplorable. Now it transpires that far too much weight was given to stories from a single agent called Curveball, whom German intelligence services knew to be a fabricator and an alcoholic, but whose information was regurgitated by our own intelligence services. The deeper that American inquiries, including congressional ones, go into these issues, the less confidence one has that we have learnt from our mistakes. There can be no confidence that the soothing official phrases about matters being attended to and procedures being reviewed or strengthened have been put into practice. If an inquiry diverts the attention of some of those who have been handling things so far, it is time their attention was diverted.
Thirdly, the role of Iran in Iraq is emerging centre stage. Once again, we seem to be groping around for information on Iran’s weapons capacities, its nuclear programme, its internal political dynamics and much more. We need much more airing of the expertise and differing views before we get dragged into the same mistakes again and the same ill judged actions as before.
The Prime Minister said on the radio this morning that he is not aware of any military action for Iran. That in itself is ominous. Not only should we be aware but we should explain to our Washington allies the need for co-operation from Iran on several fronts and the limits of military power rather than attacking the Iranians.
Fourthly, people simply want to know the truth about what went wrong. Why were there intelligence failures? Why did the PM say things he thought were true, but turned out to be untrue, about the Iraqi threat? Why did we let our American friends commit such mistakes? Why was the preparation for the post-invasion situation so poor? Why were the experts surprised when the blood-soaked split between the Sunnis and the Shias widened out? What input did we have in American decisions, many of which were appallingly misguided, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Jay? Why could a Labour Prime Minister not learn from the wily Harold Wilson, who kept us carefully out of the Vietnam quagmire while none the less staying friendly with the Americans? Why could those lessons not be learnt?
The questions go on and on but the answers stop short. We are now at the reduced stage where our foreign policy consists of a wish list of unlikely hopes. It may be that everything will suddenly change for the better in the Middle East. It may be that Israel and Palestine will find a modus vivendi. It may be that Iran will start playing a positive role in preventing nuclear proliferation. It may be that the bloody civil war in Iraq will come to a halt. It may be that Shia and Sunni will live in harmony. It may be that democracy in various guises will spread, and sweetness and light will spread throughout the region as kingdoms and emirates convert to parliamentary government. It may be that in Saudi Arabia, opposition to the House of Ibn Saud will evaporate and the terrorists and extremists will fold their tents and depart. It may be that peace will descend on battered Lebanon, Hezbollah go back to their villages and hills and Beirut will rise again. All that is noble and possible, devoutly to be wished for and worked for; but we know perfectly well that it is all highly unlikely. Even for the short distance ahead, we can see that it cannot be. For those in authority to assume that any of these things will come about and that the world can glide from here to there over the months and years immediately ahead would be a total dereliction of duty and responsibility.
With our influence diminished, our resources stretched, our Armed Forces under almost impossible pressure, and with new dangers lurking just ahead, the British people are entitled to be let in on the scene in a frank and open way. We have asked, and we ask again, for a full inquiry, by privy counsellors, modelled on the Franks inquiry. We will keep asking for it. If the timing is not right at this second, it will be right soon. If the present Prime Minister will not agree to an inquiry, perhaps the next Prime Minister will; indeed, he may have already decided to set one up. Only then will we be able to say truly, as we should, that we have learnt no end of a lesson and it has done us no end of good. Until then, we live in hopes.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, for initiating this debate and other noble Lords for their contributions. I certainly join in welcoming the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker of Aldringham, and congratulating him on making such an exceptional maiden speech. I look forward to his further contributions.
As ever, the debate has brought together deep knowledge and reflection, and it is not surprising that the reading of the position is not the same on all parts. Least of all do I think that we are incapacitated in our foreign relations work, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, suggested; not because I think that we can glide from one position to another, to use the word he used, but because, in a difficult environment, all that you can do is to work as hard as you can on all of the problems to produce better results. On one point, I think that the House is broadly united and I welcome that: the defence of FCO budgets. I will convey those points to the Chancellor.
I start immediately with the central issue that has been raised about an inquiry of one kind or another. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, called for a national commission and there have been variants on that. The noble Lords, Lord Alderdice, Lord Lamont, Lord Owen, Lord Garden and, just a moment ago, Lord Howell of Guildford, all added support to that thought. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, who inaugurated this thought in this afternoon's debate, that I can think of a number of occasions when it was also thought appropriate to consider where we were going and why—Rwanda, the dismemberment of Bosnia, a European country—but none was followed by a Butler or a Hutton because there was no taste for it. The Government have not taken that position. Since May 2003, there have been inquiries, including the two that I just mentioned.
There has also been a great deal of opportunity to debate Iraq, as we have done this afternoon and will continue to do. It has featured in more than 60 parliamentary debates since 2003. I say to my noble friend Lady Turner that it cannot be contended that there has been a shortage of opportunities to talk about this. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, recalled several of those debates for us this afternoon. The Prime Minister said yesterday that there were important lessons to learn but that an inquiry was not appropriate while our troops are engaged in combat in Iraq and facing extreme danger. The point was repeated by my noble friend the Lord President in her Statement to the House yesterday. She said:
“The time to make such a decision will be when all our troops have come home”.—[Official Report, 21/2/07; col. 1082.]
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, that the argument is not a shelter. The contention that has been put is that the war was so fundamentally wrong that, were we to conduct an inquiry that had the type of consequences in outcome and thinking that he has suggested, in a very balanced speech, troops would be asked to serve against a background that could hardly be described as legitimate. It is not likely to be a cerebral or academic discussion and learning process of that kind and in these circumstances. Now is not the time for investigating what might or might not have been, but for putting our energy—all of our energy—into helping the Iraqi Government bring an end to the violence.
Focusing energy is paramount now and in saying that, I say to the my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours that nobody has set their mind against an inquiry or some form of debate and discussion of these fundamental policy issues in the long term. The noble Lords, Lord Jay of Ewelme and Lord Butler of Brockwell, have both contributed, as did the noble Lord, Lord Howell, a few moments ago, to possible items on the agenda of such a discussion of fundamental policy.
As I said, Iraq has being the subject of debate in the House on a number of occasions. It is a subject that generates, quite understandably, real passion and great concern and this afternoon’s debate was no different in that regard. Views have been and will continue to be deeply divided about the rights and wrongs of the intervention, over the extent of the coalition's preparedness to assume control of the country, and over the strategy to contain sectarian violence which has gripped parts—not all, but significant parts—of Iraq. But on one issue I suspect that every Member of this House will be united. In our heart of hearts, every one of us will recognise that Iraq was always a deeply fractured country—fractured by differences of faith and tribal loyalty—and was held together only by the utter brutality and suppression exercised by Saddam Hussein. His dictatorship was the glue; my noble friend Lady Ramsay used that expression, and I concur with her. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, reported to the then Foreign Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, following a visit to Baghdad in 1980,
“murder continues to be one of the main techniques of government”.
He had no doubt of the reality then, and he was right.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, also described the breadth of this problem in 2003. He said:
“For too long, Saddam Hussein's unchecked situation has been an inspiration for ‘rogue states’ and terrorist groups. Any failure to call him to account will provide the influence they crave to sustain their destructive activities; a beacon to those who look upon deadly weapons as the only alternative”.—[Official Report, 3/2/03; col. 24.]
Saddam ruled by indiscriminate terror, torture and murder of Shias, Kurds, his fellow Sunnis, the Marsh Arabs, and pretty much every vestige of the socialist currents in his country, including every active trade unionist he could lay his hands on. He slaughtered hundreds of thousands of his own people, to say nothing of the millions who perished during the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam’s brutality knew no bounds. To take and slightly change an expression that I have heard used elsewhere, he was an indefatigable mass murderer.
In that light, the logic of the position taken by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, is that if this Leviathan had been left in place, no alternative structure being available below him because he had suppressed it, somehow that would have been better or all right. I cannot accept that; I am much closer to the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson of Winterbourne, in this; it was a genocidal regime and nothing better could flower under its shadow. It is not easy to see how anything could be constructed relatively quickly by the Iraqi people who suffered under that shadow, in terms of new institutions. It does not matter whether the tyranny was secular or of any other kind; it appeals to me no more with one or other of those adjectives in front of it.
The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, reflected in his memoirs on Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait:
“In the West we hoped and expected that the ruin of his”—
that is, Saddam’s—
“policy in Kuwait would lead to his downfall”.
But it did not. We halted but he did not. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, is absolutely right about this; he continued to brutalise his people, entrenching the divisions and hatred still further. His eventual fall left any concept of a stable entity imposed under his regime in tatters. The deeply fractured Iraqi society split open; it had none of the stabilising unity created by democracy, the one legitimate force that could potentially hold Iraq together. Extremists on both sides rapidly moved in, sowing the seeds of the appalling sectarian violence we are witnessing today.
I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Garden, that I do not intend to discuss intelligence analyses; he did not expect me to. What I can say is what the Prime Minister was saying yesterday—that in the course of this reply, I will reflect our real estimate rather than look at all the possible estimations that can be gained as that would hardly be a responsible act of government.
For the completeness of information, it is true that the Danish battalion will be withdrawn, but they are also providing a detachment of four helicopters, for which we have been asking for some time. The Australians, Romanians and Czechs all plan to retain their current force levels for the time being. So let us get the whole of the picture, not part of it.
I do not pretend that the security situation in parts of Iraq—notably Baghdad—is anything but very grim. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Owen, are absolutely right—and I am with the noble Lord, Lord Owen, in saying that “grim” is not the same word as “defeat”. But I remind the House that the current Iraqi Government have been in place for just nine months, as my noble friend Lady Ramsay reminded us. Their strategy is now to attempt to reshape things. Governing by coalition is not an easy job for them. Attempting it for the first time in a country riven by decades of terror and oppression where there is no tradition of democracy or government by consensus was never going to be easy and makes the process still harder. In my view a rush to judgment is premature and unhelpful. As the noble Lord, Lord Owen, rightly said, the work of constructing peace is laborious and needs a depth of resources. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, made the vital point about May 2003. It is also a question of Iraqi resources, not just coalition resources. National reconciliation is critical to ending the violence and building a stable future. For that, as we know only too well from the situation in Northern Ireland, which was mentioned, you need a lot of trust between communities. That takes time and we still have a long way to go there.
Iraq is facing a crisis of trust between faiths, communities, the security forces and the people. The challenge for Iraq is therefore huge. We and our international partners must give it all the support that we can. The choice is not between whether we should have lived with a vile dictatorship or whether we should tolerate the brutality of sectarian violence; the choice is to support the Iraqi people in a quest for democracy that they have voted for. Step one is to contain the violence. That is why the effort that the Iraqi Government have launched this month to bring security to Baghdad is so critical to the country’s future. However difficult the plan’s implementation may be—and I do not deny the difficulty for one moment—it is important to acknowledge that the support of the United States for the Baghdad security plan is essential. Prime Minister Maliki has made clear his determination to crack down on all those responsible for the current violence, regardless of sect, religion or political affiliation. The evidence for the start of this is the arrest of hundreds of militia members in recent months in joint Iraqi and coalition operations. That will need to continue and be shown to continue. The Iraqi Government have established a structure to try to ensure proper co-ordination of the political, security and economic dimensions of the plan, which has wide involvement and support right across the political spectrum in Iraq.
Our objectives need to be described. The scale of the task is daunting. We have assured the Iraqi Government of our full support, in partnership with the coalition. That was our sovereign choice, dictated by no one other than ourselves. In taking this stand we rely on the courage and dedication of the men and women of the British Armed Forces and the many British civilians working alongside Iraqis to help them build for the future. I again thank our Armed Forces for the incredible work that they are doing. That was underlined in what the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, said. I join those on all sides of the House who expressed deep sadness at the loss of a royal marine from 45 Commando on routine patrol in Helmand yesterday. There are no further details now, as noble Lords will understand, but I thank everybody for the comments they made, which will be passed to the family and friends of that serving soldier.
Our objective remains to help increase the Iraqis’ capacity to maintain security so that they can assume responsibility as early as possible, and to promote national unity. In our own area of responsibility, in Basra, the challenges are distinct but just as important. Levels of violence are lower than elsewhere. The four southern provinces account for less than 5 per cent of the overall violence in Iraq. The principal challenges are the quality of governance, the capacity of the Iraqi security forces, crime, the role of the militias and political competition among Shia groups. Iraqi authorities must take the lead in these matters but we will continue to provide patient, committed support for as long as it is needed. Central to our efforts has been Operation Sinbad. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, British forces have been working systematically, with the Iraqi army and police, district by district, to improve security and kick-start economic activity throughout the city. This has helped give the 10th division of the Iraqi army, responsible for security in and around Basra, experience in planning and carrying out joint operations alongside the Iraqi police and coalition forces. Of course, we advise and mentor, and we can offer support if necessary, but Sinbad has shown that the Iraqi army is beginning to take the overall lead without direct coalition support.
Our work in Basra is laying the foundations for transition, and we hope to secure the transfer of security as soon as possible, but the process remains dependent on the capability of the Iraqi security forces and the conditions on the ground. We will continue our training and mentoring work both through hands-on support of our military transition teams and through formal leadership training at the new joint leadership academy.
As the Prime Minister said yesterday and the Defence Secretary said again today, we hope that Maysan province can be handed over to full Iraqi control over the next four months and that Basra can be handed over in the second half of the year. That will mean a reduction from the 7,100 British troops deployed today to around 5,500. The intention of the drawdown is clear. I will not indulge in any demand for a precise timetable or any statement that provides a tactical advantage to those who are simply hostile to all our goals. How would that serve any serving member of our forces?
The UK’s police training teams have been working closely with the Basra police to improve overall standards of policing. We have heard in the debate today about how police stations are moving to better standards. UK police officers and prison advisers are training and mentoring the Basra police and the Iraqi corrections service in Basra. British lawyers are building the capacity of the judiciary, which the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, rightly drew to our attention. To date, over 11,500 police officers, 700 prison officers and 100 judges have been trained in Basra. Respect for the rule of law is imperative if Basra, like the rest of Iraq, is to attract large-scale inward investment and if people are to conclude that crime does not pay.
A great deal still remains to be done, but there is a trend that we can recognise. We will focus on building the capacity of the permanent joint command centre in Basra to direct operations effectively throughout the city. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, that this is in no sense a sign of past defeats; it is a sign of taking out some of the issues that have been seriously problematic. For those reasons, we have abolished the corrupt Basra serious crimes unit, which was responsible for much of the crime in the city, and we are setting up a new crimes unit in its place. We will continue to support the internal affairs department that we set up last year to root out corruption and abuse. As with the army, we will offer specialist training for officers at a new joint leadership academy.
With its huge oil reserves, ports, agriculture and trading links, Basra is potentially an economic powerhouse. Developing all those sectors over time will bring real growth to the country as a whole. Basra was the first place to develop its own three-year provincial development strategy. The Basra provincial government are already using the strategy to plan and implement essential infrastructure repairs, supported by the UK, the United States and Denmark. My noble friend Lady Whitaker emphasised United Kingdom funding commitments, and I confirm all that she said. The Government of Iraq have sole control over how the money in the development fund for Iraq is spent. They have to be audited by an international accounting firm, and new anti-corruption procedures are being established.
As noble Lords have noted, we are working on infrastructure projects to improve water and power supplies and to train local engineers. By the summer of this year, we will have added or secured power equivalent to a 24-hour power supply for over 1 million people and improved access to water for 1 million people. The multinational forces led by us have also been directly involved in reconstruction. Work is being done on agricultural projects to regenerate Basra’s date palm plantations. There is no shortage of resources in Iraq; what is lacking is the capacity of Iraqi institutions to deliver. That is what we are trying to change.
Ten days ago, the Basra Development Forum met for the first time. It brought together in a nationally televised meeting Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, the Governor of Basra, the Basra provincial council and a number of national Ministers to discuss the province’s development. For the first time, the people of Basra heard from their own Government how much money—$200 million—is to be invested in the area, when and on what. A new transparency, which has to be accompanied by anti-corruption methods, is very important. There are hopeful signs of new hydrocarbons legislation, which will add transparency to the potential wealth of the area.
But I accept that sustainable economic growth is not possible without security, so that must remain our primary objective. Large areas, including the north, are now relatively stable. While the outlook in other areas may appear very difficult, we should also note on these occasions what has been achieved: the first ever democratically elected Government, and the destruction of a brutal dictatorship, in which, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, torture and murder were state policy. A parliament and Government were elected by 76 per cent of the electorate—a massive vote of confidence in democracy. Hundreds of newspapers, magazines and radio and television stations have been launched. Many thousands of new NGOs are beginning to build civil society.
Perhaps I may say in respect of that that some of the critical work is being done with women. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Gould for raising this benchmark issue. The UK has been at the forefront of activity to promote women’s rights and to support a growing role for Iraqi women in public life by funding training, seminars, workshops and visits to this country by Iraqi women active in public life, including politics and the trade union movement. The review of the constitution is due to end on 15 May 2007, and I assure my noble friend that the removal of Article 41 indeed remains one of our objectives.
For the first time in recent Iraqi history, the seeds of democracy are there. For the first time, millions of Iraqis can look at the prospect of freedom, justice and choice—the basic human rights denied to them under a brutal regime. They want those rights and we should applaud that.
Yet a minority of extremists and fanatics, who represent no Iraqi community, are trying to hold that country to ransom and to destroy the fragile democracy. The stronger democracy becomes, the fiercer their assault against it. If the democratic process in Iraq succeeds, their cause—to subject the people to their own form of brutal repression—will be lost. Iraq’s neighbours and other countries in the region have a key interest in supporting efforts to improve this situation in Iraq and in ensuring that instability does not spread across the region.
In this debate, I greatly welcome the focus that there has been on exactly that issue. There has been focus on the role of Iran and Syria in Iraq. The noble Lord, Lord Jay, has argued for a better regional approach, and the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, asked about the international support group. We completely agree on the importance of unambiguous support for Iraq from its neighbours and of machinery that will assist in developing that kind of support. Everyone will have their own views and it is not for us as outsiders to impose what the form of that support should be, but it is plainly needed. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, made the same point on working with neighbouring states. In response to the noble Earl’s question, as just one example of the work being done, the Prime Minister’s adviser in these matters, Nigel Sheinwald, reactivated the links with Syria, and those links are beginning to be of vital importance throughout the region. The Riyadh conference is a matter about which we need to know a bit more before I could say anything particularly helpful.
As the Prime Minister and others have made clear on many occasions, we believe that these neighbours should play a constructive role in Iraq’s development. However, we must acknowledge that in the past they have chosen violence and terrorism in Iraq. Iran and Syria have a strategic choice to make. They can behave as responsible members of the international community—and I am eager that we should work with them to achieve that—or they can continue to support terrorism and instability in the region. If they do, there are consequences of such actions.
The Prime Minister answered the question this morning about any military threat to Iran. There is no threat. I shall say that in terms that I hope will be taken as more straightforward: we make no threat. I am with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, on the need for multilateral work on Iran, on the importance of the EU in this matter and on the importance of diplomacy, as well as in respect of the nuclear portfolio, doing what we can to deal with it through the appropriate United Nations methods.
Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, that it is imperative that we all act with accurate information on Iran and not on some sort of theatrical demonstration in the newspapers or elsewhere about what is really happening. It is vital to be accurate and objective; I could not agree with him more. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, that we need more information.
I was grateful for the historical perspective set out for us by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, because it helps us to see the context. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours was right to remind us of a particular part of that historical context: the failure of the sanctions regime, which might have had much more of an effect.
However, as we look at the whole situation, I think that we need to draw out one key lesson above all others today. For me, it is that democracy may be very hard to create but, once it is there—if it is achieved—it is very hard to destroy; it becomes the bedrock. We in the international community must be steadfast in our resolve to support the Government of Iraq and Prime Minister Maliki in their efforts to root out violence, to rebuild the economy and to give that democracy a chance. I see no alternative to that. When we deliberate on these matters and the lessons to be learnt, as I have no doubt we will, I believe that we will also want to deliberate on the ethics of the proposition that we supported as our fundamental basis.
My Lords, I think that under the rules of the House a little time is left, but your Lordships will be glad to hear that I do not intend to make use of it, other than very briefly. I thank all those who have taken part in the debate and, in particular, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker of Aldringham. We will all remember his maiden speech, not just for its elegance but for its genuine feeling on a subject that should be, and I think is, important and dear to us all.
I want to make one point of substance about one thrust of this debate—namely, an inquiry. I am grateful for the support for that idea from all sides of the House. The support was not unanimous and not unqualified but it was fairly general. I was particularly fascinated by the very careful comments of the two former senior civil servants—the former Permanent Secretary to the Foreign Office, who supported the idea with qualifications, and the former Secretary to the Cabinet, who opposed the idea but with qualifications. Their views were carefully set out and are worth study, but, on the whole, I am encouraged. The wagon is moving. It will take some time to move but it is on the way, and this is not a partisan matter; an inquiry is clearly widely supported.
The Minister’s reply was disappointing on that issue in particular—although not on others—but it was not unexpected. However, I do not see the logic of postponing even the start of an inquiry until all our troops are out. Our troops may be in Iraq for some years to come according to what he and, indeed, the Prime Minister said. We simply do not know how long they will be there, and rightly he has refused to give any dates. But there is no logic in saying that the whole question of an inquiry must wait until then. That would be true only if we were talking about the rights or wrongs of war, but we are not. The proposal is for an inquiry into the preparation and conduct, which is a different point. All kinds of questions arise under those headings and they need fairly urgent consideration and examination if the lessons are to be learnt.
However, this is the House of Lords and the debate has ranged widely and interestingly in a way that would not be possible in another place. The Minister has dealt in great detail, as he always does, with the points raised and the different interests. But particularly moving were the accounts given by noble Lords who basically support the war and base that support on what is being done for good in Iraq. That is part of the picture that we certainly should not forget, but it has to be weighed against all that has gone wrong, all the people who are dead but would otherwise be alive, and all the chaos that has ensued.
I thank the Minister in particular. It is his duty, which he always undertakes very skilfully, to set out the picture as a whole but to put touches of brightness into it to support his case. We have listened to that before and we have now listened to it again. It is in all our interests that his vision of the bright side, which he hopes for and is working for, will turn out to be correct. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
Social Security (Contributions) (Re-rating and National Insurance Funds Payments) Order 2007
rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 24 January be approved.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, for the convenience—and, I hope, with the will—of the House, I shall speak also to the other orders in my name on the Order Paper. In my view, the regulations and orders are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
First, the order concerning national insurance contributions increases contribution rates and thresholds for the self-employed and the weekly rate of voluntary class 3 contributions, broadly in line with inflation. The review of contribution rates is accompanied by a report from the Government Actuary detailing the effects of the draft order and the draft order up-rating benefits laid by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the National Insurance Fund. I am pleased to say that, for the eighth year in a row, there is no expectation that the fund will need a Treasury grant. Nevertheless, a prudent provision of 2 per cent of all benefit expenditure is made.
Northern Ireland has a separate national insurance scheme from Great Britain, but the two schemes are closely co-ordinated and maintain parity of contribution rates. This draft order covers both Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
On the other orders, tax credits, together with child benefit, deliver financial support to the vast majority of families with children in the UK and are vital to our commitment to tackle child poverty. I am pleased to introduce the regulations and orders, which increase certain elements and thresholds of tax credits and raise the rates of the child benefit and guardian’s allowance.
Turning to the Tax Credits Up-rating Regulations 2007, tax credits play a major role in ensuring that work pays and in helping people to move up the employment ladder. Overall, nearly 6 million families containing nearly 10 million children are benefiting from tax credits. These regulations increase the child element of tax credit by £80, in line with earnings, to £1,845 a year from 6 April 2007. This element has increased by £400 since its introduction in April 2003, benefiting 6.8 million children. In addition, the regulations increase the disabled child elements of child tax credit in line with inflation.
The elements of working tax credit will also increase in line with inflation. The working tax credit provides support to low-income working families, including people who do not have children. The tax credit system has been designed to offer support to people as they move between jobs and as their circumstances change. Building on the lessons from the first two years of tax credits, the 2005 Pre-Budget Report announced a package of measures to improve the system. These measures will ensure that the system strikes the right balance between providing a stable award and maintaining the ability to respond to changes.
I turn to the Child Benefit Up-rating Order 2007 and the guardian’s allowance orders. Child benefit is payable to 6.7 million families for around 13 million children and young people, providing almost all families in the UK with a worthwhile contribution towards the cost of bringing up their children. These instruments increase rates in line with inflation. From 9 April 2007, child benefit will be worth £18.10 per week for the first child and £12.10 for each subsequent child. The Government are committed to increase child benefit in line with prices. As a result of these increases, the rate payable for the oldest qualifying child remains more than 25 per cent greater in real terms than the rate payable in 1997. The guardian’s allowance will increase to £12.95 per week.
With the increases effected by these instruments, we will be delivering even more support next year. We remain committed to the Government’s long-term aim of eliminating child poverty within a generation and halving it by 2010. Tax credits and child benefit will remain a key part of this. Indeed, in his Budget, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made a commitment to increase the child element of the child tax credit at least in line with average earnings until the end of this Parliament. I commend these regulations and orders to the House. I beg to move.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 24 January be approved. 8th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)
My Lords, as we heard, the first of these orders deals with the resetting of rates and levels of national insurance contributions; the regulations increase the thresholds of child and working tax credits; and the other three orders provide for the uprating of the level of guardian and child benefit. Overall, we welcome these orders, which are a necessary response to inflation over the past year. However, I would like to address a few issues that arise from the presentation of the orders and probe the Government about their future plans.
I shall start with tax credits. I am sure the Minister is not surprised that I do so, but the facts alone make the point. The statistics on the tax credit system as a whole are telling: the finalised awards for the tax year 2004-05 show that only 56 per cent of tax credits were paid correctly and that £1.8 billion were overpaid and £550 million were underpaid, leaving nearly a million households without the support to which they were entitled. That led to 2 million recipients having to pay back the overpaid money from the payments they received in the subsequent year. That this situation is not acceptable is evidenced by the fact that even Labour Members criticise it. In October last year, David Blunkett was quoted as saying that the system was a shambles. The Comptroller and Auditor-General, Sir John Bourn, called it ridiculous. It is so complicated that the Prime Minister appeared to forget last summer that he abolished working families’ tax credit three years ago. If even he is unable to keep track of the complexities of the system, it is unsurprising that those applying for the credits are equally confused.
What is just as worrying is that these tax credits are clearly failing to achieve their primary purpose, which is to reduce child poverty. A reduction in the number of children being brought up in poverty is an objective shared, I am sure, by all Members of the House. However, when tax credits cost the equivalent of 5 pence off the standard rate of income tax and the target for reducing child poverty is still missed, noble Lords may wonder whether there are not better ways of going about improving the welfare of children.
That brings me to the last three orders that we are discussing today. First, I shall raise a point that I have been wondering about for a while. Can the Minister explain to the House why the guardian’s allowance is set at a lower rate than child benefit? I am curious about whether there is any rationale to that. The costs of bringing up a child are identical whether you are the biological parent or not. Is it just a long-running inconsistency that no one has taken the time to address?
I also hope that the Minister will be able to shed some light on the Government’s plans concerning child benefit and associated tax credits. Do they have any plans to give child benefit a larger role within the tax and benefit system, as has been suggested? I understand that they intend to undertake a wholesale reorganisation and simplification of child benefit and the associated premiums and tax credits. Is that correct? Simplification is certainly needed because the UK now sits 67th in the world for the complexity of our tax system. If the Government have such plans to do so, can the Minister give us an idea of when more precise plans will be announced?
I should also be interested to know whether there are any plans to move tax credits, child benefit and child trust funds from the Treasury to the Department for Work and Pensions, where common sense suggests they should be placed. The high levels of fraud and mis-payment of funds are clear testimony to the inappropriateness of the current arrangements. The Treasury's role should be one of keeping a close watch over the spending of taxpayers’ money, ensuring that it is spent effectively and reducing inefficiency in other government departments.
I should like to finish by referring to the index used to measure the rate of inflation against which the level of upgrade is calculated. These orders up rate the benefit levels at the rate of inflation determined by the retail price index. Although that has been the most common and convenient measure of inflation in use for a long time now, I am sure the Minister will agree that it does not paint the full picture. It, of course, neglects to include higher-than-inflation tax rises, council tax rises or more expensive mortgage repayments in the calculations. It is also a general measure that fails to identify the particular patterns of expenditure of the young families for whom these orders seek to make provision.
It therefore increasingly fails to give a representative picture of the true cost of living for those people whom it is intended to help. Over time, the use of the RPI erodes the value of the benefits the Government intend to provide for in these up ratings. It is, of course, tax credit benefits that are intended to help those most in need and who are struggling to cover inflating expenditure with incomes that do not rise as fast, but, as I have pointed out to the House, the tax credit system is severely and fundamentally flawed. I hope that, as inflation rises, and tax increases rise even faster, the Government will reflect on the efficacy of their key benefit tool, the tax credit system, and consider how it can be remodelled or whether they should be considering a replacement.
My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and I concur with much of what he has said. Our uprating system is a quintessentially important part of the process for delivering benefits. These are important orders, and I am grateful to the Minister for introducing them so eloquently.
There is a sense that people get frightened by the technicalities in some of these orders and pay less attention than maybe they would because they are overwhelmed by those technicalities. In a sense these are very technical orders. However, the Minister will agree that there are some very big principles and sums of money involved in what the House is considering this afternoon. I want to look at some overarching principles, which I think are important, and I want to look at some of the technical details.
This is an important annual occasion, which gives us a chance to look at how the Government are reviewing the relative values and benefits in front of us. It also gives us a chance to look at the coherence and complexity behind the system. Finally, it does and should give us a chance to look at what is happening in the long term because I believe that there is a predisposition—it is perfectly natural—to think, “Well, the change from last year is pretty understandable; it is related to prices” or to some other factors.
So, from year to year there is not very much change. But the House should look very carefully at the change that happens over years. You do not need to be an economist to understand that if the main mechanism for uprating is always anchored to prices, and earnings are going ahead thanks to the wonderful way the Government are discharging their duties in relation to the economy, there is a differential that is a built-in gap which is exacerbated as we go forward. Therefore, every year, although we look at the perhaps relatively individually small increases, we have to look back over the period since these benefits were put in place—they were all put into place for very good purposes—and ask ourselves whether over that period the balance is correctly kept in place as we go forward.
My first question for the Minister, although I do not expect him to spend a lot of time at this stage of the day explaining this in his reply, concerns the process of review. Under the Social Security Administration Act 1992, the Government have a duty to review. I suspect that a bit of a desktop exercise goes on. A bit of computer software is plugged into a machine. You insert the RPI, prices, earnings or something and the figures come out the other end. That is presented to Ministers, who then sign it off, and that is the result that appears in front of us this afternoon.
I have been trying for nearly 20 years to find out exactly what is involved in that duty to review. How much ministerial involvement is there? Are there meetings? Are there papers? I am not looking for state secrets—well, actually, I am always looking for state secrets, but not necessarily in this instance. It would give me more confidence to know a little more about the process that goes on. I am being a little facetious; I am sure that it is not done casually. But I would feel better if people were really spending some quality time thinking about the consequences. Obviously there is a large number of benefits and that cannot be done for every benefit every year but there are some very high-quality people in the Treasury and in the Department for Work and Pensions who know about these things. If I could be given some assurance that a meaningful deliberative process goes on year by year, I would sleep easier in my bed.
For example, is differential inflation considered? As we all know, inflation affects different groups of claimants, or customers—whatever we like to call them—differently. Is that looked at annually carefully before the final benefit uprating is decided? The UNICEF report was obviously too late to be considered for this year’s uprating, because it was only released in the past week or so, but are such external reports considered year by year?
I say that particularly because, as the House will know, the Treasury extracted, for some daft reason that I do not understand, important benefits, such as child benefit, from the grasp of the DWP and thereby, at a stroke, took them out of the purview of the Social Security Advisory Committee. That committee is a confidence-building measure. It looks at these things from an independent and very expert point of view and can give an independent assessment of what the Government are doing on benefits administered by the Department for Work and Pensions.
None of the benefits that the Minister has brought before the House this afternoon has been subject to that rigorous scrutiny. That is a worrying fact that we need to bear in mind. The duty on Treasury Ministers to give an explanation and detailed background when dealing with such benefits is perhaps greater than it is for the social security uprating order coming next week, which will be presented by DWP Ministers. Finally, on whether the process considers different factors, the whole question of fiscal drag has a profound effect over the longer term on how benefits are deployed and how their relative value changes over time. I hope that the process before the laying of the orders has also taken that into account.
There are a couple of technical things that I genuinely do not understand. I cannot understand why the guardian's allowance order that has been laid is necessary. It is necessary only because the guardian's allowance is in the wrong part of an Act of Parliament. It used to be a contributory benefit. For the life of me, I cannot see why it is necessary to single out this benefit. Actually, I think I know that the reason is that it used to be a contributory benefit and so it has to be uprated especially by itself. According to the order, the cost is negligible. The important point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, that the simplification of benefits unit, if it is doing anything, should be finding ways to move the guardian's allowance from one part of a previous statute to another. I shall make him an offer, which I hope he thinks is generous. The next time a social security Bill comes through this House, I will move an amendment myself to relocate the benefit in the statutory process. Then he will not need to move these orders in future. I cannot say fairer than that; I am doing the Minister’s job for him. If it is a negligible amount of money and an historic anomaly, simply systematically going on because it has aye been, as they say in Scotland, is not a big enough justification for bringing it before the House. Perhaps the Minister will look at that.
I absolutely concur with what the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said about child benefit. I absolutely accept that the Government have done a huge amount to increase child benefit levels although, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, reminded the House, they missed the targets just recently. I bet a monkey to a mousetrap that they will miss the 2010 targets by a much bigger amount unless these uprating orders for child benefit do not improve in forthcoming Budgets. You do not need to be an economist to do the extrapolation. Child benefit must reflect the Government’s own policy intentions and ambitions. Of course it has been uprated by prices. That is great, but it is not enough to meet the Government’s own targets. The Government are running out of time to meet the 2010 targets because these amounts of money take time to feed through and make a difference to the children in families who are in poverty. It is acknowledged that this is an improvement, but it is not good enough in terms of the Government’s own measures. Therefore, the House needs to ask the Government to think about that again.
On the social security contributions order, I do not know, and I cannot understand, why provision is made for a 2 per cent Treasury grant. The Minister said that it was a kind of safety measure and that we needed 2 per cent of the benefit spend just in case we needed it. That is great, except that the Government Actuary report that accompanies the orders makes the apposite point that,
“no Treasury grant will be needed in the period to 31 March 2012”.
The Government Actuary advises the Government to keep 16 per cent of benefit spend as a safety measure. I forget what the actual percentage of the benefit spend is now, but the Government Actuary says that we do not need this money. We have always had this provision for a government grant of 2 per cent, but if the Government Actuary is telling us that we do not need this money until 2012, why do we need this paragraph at all? It might be money for a rainy day. I do not know, but 2 per cent of the benefit spend is a huge amount of money. I cannot remember the last time it was used. There is a table at the back of the Government Actuary report, which noble Lords might like to look at, which shows that the fund is in substantial balance. Indeed, in 2011-12, there will be an end-of-year balance of 91.8 per cent of the benefit spend. The Minister does not need his 2 per cent. If he does not need it, he should not have it in his order.
I have two other quick points to make. Again, I concur with the important points made by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, that the administration of tax credits needs a serious amount of work. I do not know how the maladministration affects the ability to keep the accounts properly in order year on year, but it is completely incoherent to have the child element of the child tax credit increased by earnings at the same time as we freeze the family element of the tax credit system. There is no rhyme or reason to this, and it makes the complexity much worse if we use differential rates of benefit increase in a way that simply baffles me. I can see why the Government did this at the beginning, but I see no justification for their continuing to do so.
Finally, the orders are welcome and are important to the families that they serve. I recognise the work that the Government have been doing. Perhaps the Minister should go back to the department and look at the value of benefits as a percentage of GDP or any other relative merit measure. These have been changing over the past 25 years. On looking at such periods, some of these benefits are eroding in value substantially, which is often hidden by the fact that we look at these uprating orders year by year. You do not see it happening year by year, but if you look over a period, the evidence is staring Ministers in the face. If we do not do more, not only will the Government miss their targets, families who are in abject poverty—there still are some in this country—will continue to suffer because these upratings are not sufficient for the purpose.
My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords who have contributed to this interesting debate. I appreciate that both welcomed the orders while presenting some limited criticism of them. Let me emphasise to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, that I hear him when he talks about keeping up with inflation. I do not think I emphasised that we are talking about inflation under this Government: low levels about which the preceding Administration would have only dreamt. He will recognise, therefore, that these adjustments are taking place against a background of considerable economic stability, which, after all, is very important for everyone—as much for those who are less well off as for any other.
The noble Lord emphasised the problems of the overpayment of tax credits, and he is right. We recognise that we have considerable work to do to refine and improve the system, and we have already made considerable improvements. Tax credits are a very important dimension of our welfare policy. More low- and moderate-income families receive support through tax credits than in any previous system of income-related financial support. Although I will of course take on board the proper anxieties expressed by the Opposition about the operation of the system, I emphasise that we have made considerable progress, particularly in tackling child poverty. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, upbraided me on that as well.
With slightly more generosity, the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, also mentioned that we missed the target. We narrowly missed the target against a background of, as is known, a very substantial inheritance of child poverty to tackle. In the 1980s and early 1990s child poverty doubled in this country, but in 2004-05, despite having narrowly missed this target, 700,000 children were lifted out of relative poverty. We want to hit targets, and I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, says about his gloom with regard to the more distant target. He can indulge in gloom if he likes—economists, after all, made their reputation indulging in gloom—but the Government are committed to hitting that target and are already making substantial progress towards it.
I want to reassure the noble Lord on the overall position. I think he was asking me whether the Government take into account broader issues that may crop up which impact on low-income families and tax credits. Would a review have sufficient breadth? I understand what he says about the technicalities of the narrowly based review, but he will understand that no intelligent Government with the kind of priorities that we have in tackling child poverty would do anything other than look very closely at a report like that of UNICEF, to which he made reference, which identifies the tasks to be undertaken. While there are certain dated figures in the report, points are also made that show just how far this country had to come to emerge from the position that obtained before we came to office and the length of time it will necessarily take us to effect an amelioration. However, I want to assure the noble Lord that the policy is evolving within the context of a real appreciation of the broad objectives that we have set ourselves and the priorities we have identified.
On the detailed points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, on overpayments, there have been difficulties but the improvement has been considerable. We did much better in 2004-05 than in the preceding years, with overpayments running around a fifth lower over that period, so we are moving rapidly in the right direction. Furthermore, the measures announced in the Pre-Budget Report 2005 will reduce overpayments by about a third when fully implemented. It is not an easy task. Overpayments made to the least well-off among our citizens present real problems regarding recovery, and we have to approach the issue with understanding and the recognition that we must not create hardship through a failure of the system. That is why there are costs involved.
I want to assure the House that we are making significant progress in that area, as we are in tackling fraudulent claims. The noble Lord knows that there have been significant issues on fraud and overpayments. It is of course the Government’s responsibility to keep a careful watch over taxpayers’ money, and we are confident that we have got the measure of this development, one which has cost the nation and which needs to be remedied. I do not have precise figures on the improvements to hand, but we think that they will show that the very significant levels of fraud which occurred earlier have been sharply reduced. Indeed, I am confident about my statement in those terms.
As is the wont of the Official Opposition, the noble Lord again asked me about inflation measurements, a matter we have discussed in the House recently. He will recognise that the inflation index we use puts us into a position of direct international comparison and is an appropriate and proper measure of inflation. However, both he and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, emphasised that there are different inflation rates for different people. As he knows, the Office for National Statistics is working on this issue as a guide to policy, but that is not the same concept as relating benefits directly to inflation, which needs a clear, accurate and definitive measure that we will continue to use. Obviously the Government will take into account, in their aim of eliminating child poverty, those factors where the inflation rate may be higher for certain categories and therefore need to be taken into account. However, I must say that those factors will vary a great deal between families. There is no easy measurement of those figures and we would be looking for fool’s gold if we thought that there was. That is why, although I am chided by the Official Opposition, I think I would be on fairly safe ground in saying that they are unlikely to produce a policy initiative indicating that they will have variable rates of inflation for a whole range of people entitled to benefits from the state. I am therefore not able to give a great deal of reassurance on that point.
The noble Lord also asked why the guardian’s allowance is lower than child benefit. The guardian’s allowance is not a substitute for child benefit and tax credits but is paid in addition to those benefits. It gives support to all families with children and recognises that a person is taking responsibility for a child whose parents have died and has additional costs. There is no obvious reason why it should be exactly the same as any other benefit; it is an additional concept. So that is the basis of that.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, suggested that the best way to get the inflation problem out of the way is to base all these benefits on earnings. He said that there is a comparative loss if earnings are rising faster than prices and people receive these credits only on the basis of prices. I shall not accuse the Liberals of going quite that far at this stage but the noble Lord should be careful about how much he chides me on this matter. I understand what he says. We have had this debate in regard to pensions and he will know how constructive the Government are being in the Pensions Bill which is currently before the House of Commons. He will have to be satisfied with that as an earnest of the Government’s intent at present.
I am conscious that I have been asked for a number of very precise details which I may have inadvertently glossed over, not through intent but through an inability to master entirely the detail, particularly when I know that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, has a long history of work in this area which we all respect. This is probably true of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, as well, although I know his work rather less well. My history is painfully thin and therefore, on this occasion, I must indicate to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, that there are areas on the path he invites me to go down which I must resist lest I fall into the morass.
At one stage the noble Lord suggested a wager on the child poverty target. He said that he would bet a monkey to a mousetrap. My response on behalf of the Government is that we are not going to take that wager on, because neither side seems to be particularly advantageous to us.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Tax Credits Up-rating Regulations 2007
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 30 January be approved. 8th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Guardian’s Allowance Up-rating Order 2007
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 30 January be approved. 8th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Child Benefit Up-rating Order 2007
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 30 January be approved. 8th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Guardian’s Allowance Up-rating (Northern Ireland) Order 2007
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 30 January be approved. 8th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
House adjourned at 5.33 pm.